While the common stereotype holds that the cats are aloof, independent, and solitary little jerks, the reality is much different.
Just like humans, felines are social creatures at heart, and they need a steady diet of physical and emotional stimulation from those they've bonded with—be it other cats and pets or humans—to live their best lives.
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If your kitty sinks into depression because you're gone for long stretches of the day due to work, school, or travel, or they shadow you closely upon your return home, they may be suffering from cat separation anxiety, a condition that can negatively impact their overall health and quality of life.
Below, we unpack the signs and symptoms of this condition, the environmental cues that trigger it, and tricks for mitigating and managing problems associated with cat separation anxiety.
Signs and symptoms of cat separation anxiety
Symptoms of cat separation distress manifest themselves in numerous fashions, some more harmful and pronounced than others, and can lead to unwanted behaviors such as:
- defecating and urinating outside of the litter box
- unbroken chains of meowing and related vocalizations
- destructive scratching and/or chewing
- loss of appetite (or its opposite, wolfing food down greedily in bursts)
- excessive self-grooming
- overly-exuberant greetings
But because these signs can be mild and indicative of or confused for other common cat ailments (excessive grooming, for instance, has been tied to food allergies and skin parasites), experts stress that only a veterinarian can properly diagnose cat separation anxiety in your four-legged BFF.
For this reason, veterinarians recommend a full and complete physical examination, which can include blood tests, a chemistry profile, urinalysis, thyroid testing, and a blood pressure check. Only after this step has been completed, can you and your pet's doctor map out a course of treatment.
Causes of separation anxiety in cats
Just as the signs and symptoms of cat separation anxiety can be difficult to identify, so too can the root causes.
While some animal behavioralists claim that orphaned kittens and those weened prematurely from their mother are more prone to the disease because they have fears of abandonment and haven't been fully socialized, others pin the problem on environmental factors (such as daylight savings time and an increase or decrease in exposure to the sun), changes to a daily routine, and simple boredom that can be traced back to a lack of physical, mental, and emotional enrichment.
Management techniques for cat separation anxiety
The good news is that small changes in a cat's life, diet, and daily routine can make a big difference in curbing how strongly they suffer from the effects of cat separation anxiety.
From simple things like providing additional toys to more serious remedies like anti-anxiety medications, there's a spectrum of treatments that can ease the grip of cat separation anxiety.
The most recommended tools and solutions include:
- Adding a second (or third) cat to the mix, although this step should be taken with caution. Not all cats want another cat in their home, and adding another cat might cause territory issues or stress behaviors. Consult your vet first.
- Mental stimulation is key. Try to incorporate puzzle feeders, elevated areas, hideaways (tunnels), and cat trees into your home to alleviate boredom and hone their hunting and stalking instincts. Bonus points if these afford window views where kitty can gaze outside and chirp at birds and other critters.
- Daily playtime sessions that tire kitty out with some much-needed exercise. Try to play with your cat in 15-minute intervals at least twice a day. From expensive to homemade, toys like loose string, flashlight beams, and bouncy balls can keep kitty alert, active, and engaged.
- Rewarding cats with pets, treats, and praise when they're quiet and at ease, not when they're acting needy.
- Desensitizing kitty to your coming and going. Keys, jackets, overnight bags—all are cues that they start to associate with your departures. Carrying these items around the house where your cats can see and smell them will undo some of that anxiety, especially if you don't actually leave. Likewise, tossing some catnip in your briefcase and then letting them sit in it will also help break the negative connotation your cats have with these objects. At the same time, when you do return, make a fuss about seeing them but not too much of one.
- If finances permit, hire a cat sitter or recruit a friend or family member to chill with them.
- Some people compensate for their daily absence with video (DVDs of birds, squirrels, and butterflies, for instance, will keep them glued to the TV) and music (classical —especially that played on a harp — or soft rock).
- Anti-anxiety meds probably constitute the most serious remedy to cat separation anxiety, but they're best used sparingly and in combination with the tips outlined above. As these would be prescribed by your pet's vet, that's a conversation you'll need to have with them.
While cats are generally more solitary creatures than dogs are, they can still get lonely, and can experience separation anxiety. To ease this, try to play with your cat in 15-minute intervals at least twice a day. Additionally, make sure your cat has access to lots of mentally stimulating toys, vertical space to climb and play, and scratchers. If your cat does not respond to these changes, consult your vet to see if anti-anxiety medication might be right for your cat.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.