Does your cat experience separation anxiety? Does it yowl incessantly when you’re about to leave, and after you’ve left? Does it spray when you’re away? If so, how can you get it to feel more secure in its bond with you?
How can you help a cat with separation anxiety? There are many things you can do to stop your cat getting lonely and bored. Spend time with your cat when you can, and before you leave. Offer your cat a vantage point at which to sit so it can see outside; give your cat toys it can play with on its own; hide food around the house for it, or buy it a food puzzle (as well as arranging for it to have enough normal food); leave the TV or radio on, or have a friend catsit your cat while you’re away. If the problem is severe, consider sending your cat to a cattery, getting a second cat, taking your cat to the vet, or giving your cat up for adoption.
The guide below is split into two halves. The first half details what causes cat separation anxiety, and how you can spot its symptoms. The second part looks at how to stop a cat feeling separation anxiety by going over the points described above in more detail.
Why Do Cats Experience Separation Anxiety?
To understand how to help a cat with separation anxiety, you first have to understand what causes the issue in the first place. To do so, it’s always helpful to put yourself in your cat’s shoes and think from their perspective.
Experience of Abandonment/Being Left Alone When Young
It stands to reason that if a cat experiences a painful separation when it’s young, it may have separation anxiety when it’s older.
The first few weeks of a kitten’s life are crucial for its development. During these weeks, your cat learns whether it can trust people, whether it can trust other cats, whether certain loud noises are worth being scared of, body language, play fighting and real fighting, hunting… The list goes on. What happens during those few weeks will shape your cat’s personality for the rest of its life. So, if your cat goes through anxiety as a result of abandonment or separation, this can mentally ‘scar’ it.
There are lots of ways that your cat may have experienced a painful separation. For example:
- Your kitten was taken from its mother too soon, i.e. before it was fully weaned. Kittens start weaning at 3-4 weeks, but it isn’t an instant process. It can take up to 8-12 weeks. If your kitten is taken from its mother before it has weaned, it may feel abandonment and form an insecure relationship with you.
- Your kitten was abandoned. It’s an unfortunate reality that kittens still get abandoned every day. If you found your kitten somewhere, or got it from a shelter after it had been abandoned, it may have separation anxiety. The same applies if your kitten got lost when it was young.
- You went on holiday when your kitten was building its initial bond with you. Even leaving for just a week can make your kitten think you’re gone forever. While it may not remember the event directly, it will have learned not to form secure bonds with people, as they can leave without warning.
Events like these set your kitten up to experience insecure relationships when it grows up.
As your cat’s keeper, all of the food your cat eats comes from you. If your cat is an outdoor cat then it could hunt if you’re not around—although you should have set up a way to feed them while you’re not there—but indoor cats don’t have that option.
The reason why this is relevant is that your cat knows this. That’s why your cat pesters you for food and treats; it knows that they come from you. If you go away, and your cat doesn’t know when you’re coming back, it will experience ‘food insecurity’. That’s another way of saying that your cat doesn’t know where its food is going to come from.
Not all cats experience food insecurity. If you have left your cat alone a few times and always ensured that it has enough food, then it should know that, too. It will assume that there’s going to be enough food because it has no reason to think otherwise. But if a cat has been without food for an extended period before, or you leave your cat alone on an irregular schedule, it will assume the worst.
On to a more benign cause of separation anxiety: boredom.
Again, your indoor cat is reliant on you for almost everything. It gets its food from you; its toys don’t work without you; it doesn’t get any attention or affection if not from you; its whole world revolves around you. When you’re not around, there’s nothing happening. The house is quiet, the TV is off, there’s nobody else there (if you live alone), and in short there’s nothing to stop your cat getting bored.
Cats crave stimulation just like we do. So, this could be one of the root causes of your cat’s separation anxiety.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Cats
If you’re not sure that your cat has separation anxiety, there are some ‘symptoms’ that you can look out for. Since separation anxiety isn’t a disease per se, these are signs rather than symptoms, so they aren’t necessarily consistent. But with that in mind, let’s take a little ‘does my cat have separation anxiety’ quiz! Does your cat exhibit the following behaviors?
- Not eating and drinking when left alone
- Excessive yowling and meowing when left alone
- Cat separation anxiety peeing, especially spraying, and in inappropriate places
- Excessive self-grooming
- Vomiting/bringing up hairballs more frequently when left alone (a result of excessive grooming)
- Destruction of furniture and carpets while you’re away
- Cat separation anxiety at night, i.e. display of these behaviors even when you aren’t away
If it displays these behaviors when you’re away, then you’re likely dealing with a case of separation anxiety. If you’re unsure, you can talk to a vet; there is no clinical test they can perform, but based on your cat’s case history and your description of its behaviors, they can make a diagnosis.
How Do You Stop Separation Anxiety in Cats?
Now that you know what causes separation anxiety, there are likely a few ideas you can think of right off the bat. Here are a few that we came up with!
1) Spend Time With Your Cat When You Can
Part of the reason that cats get separation anxiety is if they don’t have strong bonds with their keepers. You should therefore look to make your bond with your cat as strong as possible in the time you do get with it. You can do that by playing with it, petting it, letting it sit on your lap or on your bed, giving it treats, and generally just being around. This may help your cat remember you while you’re away, and encourage it to think that you will eventually come back.
This applies both in the normal time you share, and the time before you leave. It should also go without saying that it’s best to spend calm time with a cat that gets nervous easily. Then when it is time to go, tailor how you leave in the following way:
- Keep your house calm and quiet before you leave
- Don’t have obvious ‘trigger moments’ before you leave, like putting on your shoes where your cat can see or picking up your keys loudly
- Give your cat its own space to retreat to if it doesn’t want to spend time with you
This will help make the leaving process less traumatic for your cat.
2) Let Your Cat See Outside
This can help both with the boredom and loneliness aspects of separation anxiety.
Cats aren’t indoor animals by nature. While they are domesticated in many ways, this part of the wild cat hasn’t been erased: they still love the outdoors. If your cat had the choice, it would spend much of its time (if not all of its time) outside. And, yes, that applies to indoor cats.
When you’re around, being stuck indoors is bad enough for your cat. But at least you’re around to provide it with some stimulation. You pet your cat, pay attention to it and play with it. But when you’re gone, it’s stuck in an unnatural environment with nothing to keep it entertained. Having a vantage point from which it can see outside can really help here: your cat can watch the birds, listen to the sounds of the outdoors, and maybe even keep an eye out for you coming back.
Bear in mind that it’s just as important that your cat can smell and hear the outdoors—or, actually, more important. A cat’s sense of sight is its weakest, while its senses of hearing and smell are strong. So letting your cat smell and hear the outdoors can help here too.
3) Keep Your Separation On a Regular Schedule (Cat Separation Anxiety Vacation)
Something else that might help is to make the separation seem more normal.
Let’s say you’ve never been away from your cat for more than an evening, but you suddenly decide to take a weeklong holiday. Because your cat has never experienced separation before, it has no reason to think that you’re going to come back. By contrast, if you are away every weekend like clockwork, your cat will accept separation from you as par for the course. It knows you’re going to come back, and it knows it will have enough food in the meantime.
You should therefore keep your time away from your cat as scheduled as possible. For example:
- Go away at the same time each time you leave
- Go away for the same amount of time each time
- Make the same arrangements while you’re away each time (e.g. have the same person feed your cat each time)
- Come back at the same time each time
This will all make the process seem normal to your cat, and it should get more used to you going away.
4) Give Your Cat Toys It Can Play With On Its Own
Giving your cat the tools it needs to keep itself entertained can help it overcome separation anxiety. These stop your cat getting bored while you’re away. Examples of toys a cat can play with on its own include:
- Exercise wheels. Yes, there are exercise wheels for indoor cats! They’re obviously a lot bigger than those for other pets. Not all cats get the idea, but those that do, love them.
- Balls your cat can bat around. Some have tiny weights in them that make them move in unpredictable ways. That’s what makes them fun for cats: that they move in ways they don’t expect.
- Strings or feathers set up to dangle from something like a cat scratcher.
- Cat tunnels. These are best when there’s something at the end of the tunnel for the cat to attack.
- Those toys that have the balls on tracks that run around in a circle.
Toys that make noise are good, too. Cats thrive when they use all of their senses, and when you’re not around, the house can be silent. Toys that make noise—like the tunnel or the exercise wheel—are great for that reason, too.
5) Hide Food Around The House
So, part of the reason that cats get separation anxiety is that they don’t know where their next meals are coming from. There are multiple approaches to keeping your cat fed while you’re away, but you likely haven’t thought of hiding treats around the house for your cat to find.
The idea is that your cat can search for its food independently. Indoor cats know that you are the source of all food, so when you go away, it will make your cat insecure. But if your cat can find food hidden in random places, it won’t worry so much: it will feel like it can find as much as it needs.
That, of course, should be in addition to feeding your cat in the normal ways while you’re gone. These include having somebody come to your house to feed your cat, setting up an auto cat feeder, leaving out enough cat biscuits for your entire trip, or letting your cat out so that it can hunt for its own food. By using one, some or all of these ideas, you should make your cat feel more comfortable with regard to its food while you’re away.
6) Will a Second Cat Help With Separation Anxiety?
The answer is that it depends on your cat. Some cats are highly territorial, while others are more sociable. You therefore might not know whether this would work until you try it.
The rationale behind the idea makes sense. One of the reasons cats experience separatsion anxiety is that they get bored easily. Having another cat in the home could make that less of an issue; the cats could play, for example, or at least would have their monotony broken by the actions of the other.
The problem is that cats aren’t naturally sociable, especially if they experience trauma when young. The species that housecats were bred from is a solitary one; not all cat species are like lions living in prides. When one encounters another in the wild, it’s more likely that they will fight than do anything else. As such, your cat may take badly to its new ‘friend’, which would make its quality of life worse, not better.
If you happen to know that your cat loves other cats, this option may work for you. But otherwise it’s a drastic step.
7) Leave The TV Or Radio On
Another option is to stop your house being so boring while you’re away. One way of doing that is by leaving the TV or radio on. Lots of people do that anyway to deter burglars, but you could also consider doing it for your cat’s sake.
To be clear, cats don’t listen to the radio or watch TV. They’re aware that they’re there, but it’s rare for a cat to actually sit and watch/listen to what’s going on. That being said, they can provide a small dose of normality for your cat while you’re away, and stop the house being so silent. This isn’t likely to have as big an effect as, say, buying your cat some new toys but it’s worth a go.
My Cat Has Separation Anxiety & Nothing Works!
If you’ve tried all of the above tips and none of them works, don’t worry. You still have options available, although they’re a little more difficult, expensive or time consuming to put into practise.
One is to consider sending your cat to a cattery. Catteries are like kennels for cats: places where people look after your cat for you. There are different kinds of cattery, with some allowing your cat more freedom and more interaction, and others offering less. Needless to say, the better ones are typically expensive! These could be better for your cat, in that they stop your cat getting bored; but if your cat is the anxious kind, then it might not enjoy a) going to a new place and b) being around so many people. It may come to dread you going away even more.
You could also let a friend look after your cat for a while. That could either be through having a friend catsit for your cat in its own home, or having your cat go to their house; the former is the better option as the cat gets to stay in its own ‘territory’. The presence of your friend, especially if your cat likes your friend, will be reassuring to your pet. It will know that your friend will feed it, can provide it with attention/affection, and keep the house active. Again, your cat might like the added company, but if it’s nervous then it may feel even worse than just being alone.
Separation in Cats Medication
If nothing else works, consider talking to a vet. They may be able to help your cat with its anxiety through medication. There are both pharmaceutical and ‘natural’ cat anxiety medications that the vet can prescribe which work for general nervousness, but may also help here. There’s also an outside chance that your cat has a separate health condition which is causing its anxiety or making its anxiety worse, which the vet can diagnose.
Your final option is to give your cat up for adoption. This isn’t something you should do lightly, but it may be for the best. If your cat experiences dreadful separation anxiety, and you need to continually leave for long and irregular periods, you’re probably not a good match. It’s like any relationship: sometimes a pairing just doesn’t work. If you give your cat to a good home, it may be happier than it is with you; plus, you won’t have to worry any more about your unhappy cat back home. This is something for you to think about, and talk about with your family/partner and vet.