The signs your cat has separation anxiety (and what to do about it)

Separation anxiety is when an overly attached animal exhibits distressing behaviour upon being separated from its guardian.

Cats are generally considered a little more aloof and independent than most pets, so people rarely associate this condition with them.

Do not fall into this trap.

Felines come in all shapes and sizes, and with a variety of personalities, meaning there’s every chance your cat could be susceptible to what can be an extremely debilitating disorder.

A big issue for pet parents is the fact signs of separation anxiety in cats can be quite subtle. This means it is vital we know exactly what to look out for.

If symptoms go unnoticed or unchecked for a prolonged period of time, serious health complications can quickly arise.

The signs your cat has separation anxiety

  • An increase in self-grooming. When normal grooming crosses the line into overgrooming, this is a clear sign your cat is suffering in some capacity. Compulsive grooming is often connected to stress-relief, and is therefore a common symptom of separation anxiety in cats. Check for bald patches. These will most likely appear on a cat’s lower belly or legs. If they have started appearing following time spent on their own, this could well be the stressor. Whenever you think excessive grooming may be linked to physical pain your feline is experiencing, speak with your vet.
  • An increase in crying or meowing (a general increase in vocal expressiveness). There are many reasons why a cat could be crying. Hunger, boredom, a general desire to communicate. Anything that causes pain or discomfort can lead to an increase in the amount of meowing. Whining that is linked to separation anxiety is persistent and may continue long after a pet parent has left the room or property. Spend a minute listening out for your cat after you have left. This will tell you if separation anxiety is a problem.
  • Uncontrollable urination. Anxious cats will work themselves up to a point where they can’t help when or where they go. Once a cat begins avoiding the litter box it’s imperative you get to the root cause as quickly as possible. If urination or defecation occurs immediately following your departure, separation anxiety should be considered. Setting up a camera in your home to record your feline is a good way of seeing whether or not this is the case. They may even begin urinating on your bed; another sign they are missing you.
  • Constant pacing. Cats will pace up and down from time to time, especially around mealtime, so don’t be overly concerned if they’re occasionally walking around the house with a bit more purpose. However, if your feline appears more restless than usual, and obsessive pacing, or circling, is becoming a regular sight, you will need to investigate further. A cat that has become increasingly attached to their pet parent may begin anxiously pacing just before they leave the house, and immediately after.
  • Loss of appetite. Eating habits can quickly change when cat separation anxiety strikes. You may begin to notice your once hungry feline turning their nose up at food as they come to terms with a perceived lack of attention. Alternatively, anxiety and stress can lead to them eating a lot quicker. Ensure you monitor mealtimes, and keep an eye out for any other potential causes. It goes without saying, but a cat who is not receiving the right amount of nutrients will soon develop health problems. Contact your vet if you're struggling to entice them back to the bowl.
  • Attempting to escape. Don’t be surprised if your cat tries finding different ways to leave the house once you’ve vacated the premises. Cats may claw and scratch at doors and windows in an attempt to escape from their confinement. If your feline appears content while you’re present, and doesn’t engage in any destructive behaviour, then there’s a very good chance separation anxiety is the reason behind their recent escape attempts. This needs to be resolved quickly before they cause themselves a serious injury.
  • Over excitement when a pet parent returns. We love our pets being right there to welcome us as we open the front door, but an over-exuberant welcoming could be a telltale sign that something isn’t quite right with our feline. The longer a cat who is suffering from separation anxiety is left alone the more desperate they can become for their pet parent’s return. As well as jumping all over as you walk through the door, you may find they refuse to leave your side for a period of time afterwards as well.
  • Increased lethargy. Sudden lack of energy or a disinterest in playtime could well be attributed to separation anxiety. Cats do tend to sleep a lot, but when they’re up and about they can be highly active animals. If your feline is spending a considerable amount of time away from you they could be feeling a little down, which may lead to increased lethargy. Monitor their activity levels closely to try and gauge if there is a problem that needs rectifying.

How to treat a cat with separation anxiety

  • Provide background noise when you leave the home. Leaving the television or the radio on when you leave for the day or night can reduce a cat’s anxiety. Certain websites even have ‘calming music for cats’ playlists, designed to help felines relax or sleep while you’re out. The noise should hopefully also block out any outdoor daytime noises that may upset an anxious cat further. Loud noises, unsurprisingly, can cause pets further stress, so keep the volume to a respectable level.
  • Take note of what calms your cat down – engage in this behaviour both before and after leaving the home. You know your cat better than anybody. What calms them down? Playtime, gentle stroking, pheromone diffusers, calming essential oils? Whatever the tip, trick or tool that helps relax them, try and spend a few minutes before you leave – and when you return – applying it. Continue doing this until you believe they’re comfortable being left alone, and then gradually phase it out – unless of course you want to carry on.
  • Create a stimulating environment. A cat who has plenty of things to keep them occupied may not even realise you’ve left. Place cat trees and vertical scratching posts around your property. Cats love high places because they feel safe when they’re up there. Puzzle feeders and toys can also keep them occupied for long periods of time. Felines love to watch birds. Don’t close the curtains, and ensure they have easy access to window sills. Setting up a bird feeder near the window will provide them with plenty of entertainment while you’re not there.
  • Ask somebody to check in on them. If possible, ask a friend or family member to call in and check up on your cat while you’re out. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, the company, especially if this is the first time you’ve left them alone for a long period of time, could reduce their anxiety significantly. Hiring a pet sitter is also an option if you’re going to be working longer hours or you’re going away for a few days.
  • Build up to longer departures. Start off by leaving the house for just a few minutes at a time. These shorter absences will give your cat the chance to slowly adjust to being on their own. Also, keep arrivals and departures low key. Don’t shout ‘Goodbye’ when you’re leaving or shower them with attention the second you arrive back. Keep things as normal as possible. Another trick is to remove departure cues. Cats will recognise what is about to happen when you put your keys in your pocket or put your shoes on. Either perform these cues out of sight or take away their power by doing them without anything happening.
  • Stick with a routine. Cats love sticking to a schedule. Too much disruption can leave them feeling anxious and stressed. Leaving the house certainly falls into this category so you need to make sure you minimise disruption elsewhere. Feed, play with and groom your cat at the same time every day whenever possible. If you find you’re leaving the house at different times, try and adjust their schedule gradually. The closer you can keep a routine on track, the happier and more content your feline will be.
  • Never punish a cat for anxious behaviour. Punishment will only ever make a cat’s anxiety worse. Remember, your cat is not urinating outside the litter box or scratching at the doors and windows out of spite, they are doing it because they are suffering from a very common condition that affects a large number of pets. Getting angry with them will not solve anything. In fact, shouting at your cat will most likely increase their separation anxiety causing them to act out even more.

Don’t ignore the signs

While some of the signs of cat separation anxiety may be subtle, once spotted it is imperative you act swiftly.

Without intervention, this type of anxiety can be extremely debilitating for felines and may well result in a trip to the vets.

Exercise is a fantastic way of counteracting separation anxiety while also improving a cat’s physical and mental wellbeing.

If you’re looking for advice on how to coax your feline out of a slump brought on by stress, then read our ‘How To Encourage A Lazy Cat To Play & Be Active’ article.

If their separation anxiety continues to worsen, or you believe the signs are symptomatic of something more serious, you should seek professional advice straight away.

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