Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. April 15, 2021
Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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There are many myths about cats. Perhaps the most perfidious is that they don't need us, that we are only there to be their servants and they don't care for us personally. This is far from the truth. Although cats are, generally, more independent than dogs, felines are such a popular companion animal because of the bonds they develop with humans. Not only do they want to be near us, they need affection and interaction to maintain health and well-being. When their human family are not able to give them enough attention problems can arise, especially separation anxiety.

At AnimalWised, we explain everything you need to know about cat separation anxiety. We show you the causes, symptoms and treatment of this problem, allowing you to assess the well-being of your own cat.

You may also be interested in: How to Tackle Separation Anxiety in Cats

What is cat separation anxiety?

As the name implies, separation anxiety occurs when the cat is not with their guardians or some other companion. Such a companion might be another cat or even a different animal species, if they are well socialized. When cats spend time with us, they form a strong bond. However, this doesn't mean they should be overly-reliant on them.

A cat which insists on being with their human guardian at all times, may be suffering from emotional distress. While cats are curious and will follow us everywhere, including the bathroom, this doesn't mean they have a compulsion to do so. When a cat feels stressed or anxious when they are not with us, this is separation anxiety.

This reaction is often activated when the guardian leaves the home. Cats are observant and intelligent creatures. When the person starts to exit the door, the cat may try to stand in their way, meow loudly or even try to scratch or bite them. Upon return, the cat may see the house in disarray or, on the contrary, effusive affection due to a felling of relief.

Symptoms of separation anxiety in cats

While they are completely different animals in the minds of some, cats and dogs share many traits. As companion animals, they have been through a process of domestication which has led to various challenges to cohabitation with humans. When they develop separation anxiety, their behavior will change in various ways. These include:

  • Exaggerated vocalization and crying.
  • Defecation and vomiting in inappropriate places or where they know the guardian will be upset the most. These may include expensive rugs, personal items (shoes and bags) and the bed.
  • Destructive actions such as biting people in the home, scratching furniture or knocking things off shelves.
  • Excessive hygiene and self-grooming. A cat with these types of problems will lick themselves too much, to the point of creating a bald spot (although rare, it occurs in acute cases). The cat licks away their fur down to the skin and creates wounds. These can become infected and offer secondary problems.
Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment - Symptoms of separation anxiety in cats

Causes of cat separation anxiety

The reason why a cat has separation anxiety can be very difficult to determine. In many cases, the problem will be resolved without ever finding out the exact reason. This is particularly the case with cats adopted from a shelter, the reason being that it is often more difficult to know their history. When we look at the causes of cat separation anxiety we can see why:

  • Poor socialization: socialization is not merely about helping cats to get along with others, it is also about helping them to be fine when left on their own. If a cat is poorly socialized, they can become over-attached and find it difficult when left alone.
  • Trauma: if a cat has experienced trauma in the past, they will often develop behavioral problems. Sometimes the cat can become aggressive and fear human interaction, but the opposite can happen. They can become overly attached to humans which show them affection and care.
  • Lack of care: if we do not give the cat a solid routine, fail to offer them proper food or neglect any aspect of their basic care, it can create insecurity. When you are around, the cat can petition you by meowing a lot or other behaviors, but once you are gone they can feel scared. They may think they won't get anymore food or even that you will never return, causing great anxiety.
  • Genetics: there may be some factors due to breed and genetics which are difficult for us to understand. Some cat breeds are known to be more predisposed to affection than others, often because it is a character trait which has been encouraged through breeding. These breeds or mixed-breed cats might be more likely to develop separation anxiety.

How to help a cat overcome separation anxiety

Cats can develop serious physical and mental problems when they develop separation anxiety. It is imperative we treat this problem and help them to be more level at when we are not around. In these cases, you should follow this tips:

  • Research has shown that music has natural sedative properties for cats, especially if they are instrumental pieces such as harp and piano. A little before leaving home, put on this type of music. Your cat may associate it with your presence, they will feel accompanied and may even take a musical nap.

  • Put some catnip or one of their favorite toys in your bag and invite their curiosity. Your cat will begin to associate the bag with positive emotions and not with your absence.

  • Every time you leave this triggers the negative behavior. You must use certain techniques to distract their attention and try to create in them a certain notion that you are never going to leave, thus reducing their anxiety when you do. These techniques work to help them stay in control of their emotions. Collect your house or car keys at least 10 times a day, and then put them back in their place. Inside the house, carry your bag on your arm for an hour or more.The cats won't necessarily fear the worst when you do leave.

  • Make false starts. Open, exit, enter and close the door. Try this exercise as many times as necessary until your cat ignores you completely. Next, extend the time away and extend from one minute to five minutes before returning. This gradual increase will help build tolerance and also teach them that no matter how long you leave home, you will always come back.

  • Cats are extremely curious creatures and their desire to investigate is acute. Choose some treats that they like a lot and that have a strong smell. Before leaving, spread them throughout the home in strategic places and those which are not so easy to access. The kind of thing you would do on a treasure hunt. This will divert their attention for a while and amuse them at the same time. In addition, these types of exercises tend to relax them naturally.

Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment - How to help a cat overcome separation anxiety

  • Attention substitution is sometimes one of the best techniques. Ask another family member or friend to interact and play with your cat during this time you are away (arriving before you leave). If they are a feline that appreciates pampering, then a good round of petting should calm them. At the same time, it will make them feel very loved and not abandoned.

  • Intelligence toys are a great way to get your cat to forget about your departure for a while. Some examples that are in the market can be the kong or the different boards with hidden snacks. This type of toy is very suitable for cats suffering from separation anxiety.

  • Spend quality comforting time with your cat whether it's playing, petting or offering treats. Although the problem lies in the anxiety to be close to you, feeling loved will help them understand that you are not going to leave them and they can feel safe.

  • Follow a specific schedule. Create a marked daily routine that gives them confidence. For this, the ideal is to follow a schedule of meals, hygiene or games. Try to create activities that include your cat. This is one of the best ways to treat anxiety.

  • Do not punish them for the damage they may do, but reward them whenever they behavr qwell. Remember that punishment causes stress and discomfort for your cat, something that can aggravate separation anxiety. Instead, use positive reinforcement, patience, and affection.

If you want to read similar articles to Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

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1 comment
I got a 5yo cat yesterday. When we got home she went under the lounge and hasn’t been out other than to use litter tray and eat a small amount of food. What can I do to help her feel relaxed?
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Jenny,

If your cat was only adopted yesterday, it is understandable they will need some time to adjust. It is very important you are patient and not try to force interactions. She will need to allowed to adapt at her own pace. If she is overly scared, check out this article for some more information:
Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
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Cat Separation Anxiety - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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