Do Cats Suffer Separation Anxiety? Signs & Tips to Relieve the Angst

We very often hear about doggy angst during a beloved human’s absence, but what about cats? What about cat separation anxiety? In a word, yes.

With school starting, your cats (and your dogs) may suffer from separation anxiety. The signs of distress are very different, though. Find tips for helping your furry family members adjust.

Young girl reading a book with her cat at home, sitting next to two piles of books.

Back to school can change schedules and put kitty’s tail in a twist.

How to Deal With Cat Separation Anxiety

Cat separation anxiety requires behavior modification and desensitization to soothe upset kitty feelings and reverse problem behaviors. Cats may go for years without issues, and then suddenly act out when your work schedule changes and keeps you away for long hours. Vacations also tend to trigger feline separation anxiety.

Think of separation anxiety as a form of grief. Cats don’t mean to “act bad,” they just miss you so much they can’t help themselves. And the way cats make themselves feel better can cause even more stress and upset feelings to their humans.

cat separation anxiety

Cats KNOW when you’re supposed to come home…don’t disappoint the kitty!

Cat Separation Anxiety & Scented Comfort

Like dogs with the same condition, cats may cry and become upset as you prepare to leave. More often, they don’t react to your departure. They wait to “act out” once left alone, and urinate and defecate on owner-scented objects—most typically the bed.

The familiar scent of kitty’s bathroom deposits actually comforts her, and reducesfeelings of stress. Of course, these unwelcome “gifts” increase owner stress levels. And while angry reaction is understandable, your upset feelings increase the cat’s anxiety even more.

Cats don’t potty on the bed to get back at you because you left. Think of the cat’s behavior as a backhanded compliment. Kitty wouldn’t do this if she didn’t love you so much!

Portrait of yellow sad sick cat lying at home with rabbit toy

Missing you adds stress that can even lead to illness.

Desensitize and Counter-Condition for Cat Separation Anxiety

Cats pay exquisite attention to the details of their lives. They’ll often recognize subtle clues that you’re preparing to leave long before you realize. A cat may figure out that you always freshen your lipstick just before you leave. Repeating these cues takes away their power.

  • Desensitize your cats to the presence of the overnight bag by leaving it out all the time. Put clothes in and out of the bag every day, but without leaving the house, so your cat no longer gets upset when she sees you pack.
  • Toss a catnip mouse inside the suitcase, and turn it into a kitty playground. That conditions her to identify the suitcase as a happy place, rather than associating it with your absence.
  • Use behavior modification techniques so the triggers lose their power. Pick up the car keys 50 times a day, and then set them down. Carry your purse over your arm for an hour or more. When you repeat cues often enough, your cat stops caring about them and will remain calm when you do leave.
  • Fake your departure by opening the door and going in and out twenty or more times in a row until the cat ignores you altogether. Then extend your “outside” time to one minute, three minutes, five minutes and so on before returning inside. This gradual increase in absence helps build the cat’s tolerance and desensitizes her to departures. It also teaches her that no matter how long you’re gone, you always return.

Maine Coon Kitten

More Tips for Reducing Angst from Cat Separation Anxiety

Most problem behaviors take place within twenty minutes after you leave. The length of time you’re absent doesn’t seem to matter. Find ways to distract the cat during this critical twenty minutes so she won’t dirty your bed.

  • Ask another family member to interact with the cat during this time. A fishing-pole lure toy or chasing the beam of a flashlight can take the cat’s mind off her troubles. If she enjoys petting or grooming, indulge her in a touchy-feely marathon.
  • About 1/3rd of cats react strongly, another 1/3rd react mildly, and the last 1/3rd don’t react at all to catnip. If your feline goes bonkers for this harmless herb, leave a catnip treat to keep her happy when you leave. Using catnip every day can reduce its effects, though, so use this judiciously.
  • Food oriented cats can be distracted with a food-puzzle toy stuffed with a favorite treat. Make it extra smelly, irresistible and something totally different than her usual fare to be sure the treat makes the proper impression.
  • Cats that have been outside and seen the real thing often don’t react, but homebody indoor-only cats enjoy watching videos of fluttering birds, squirrels and other critters. There are a number of these videos available, including the original called “Video Catnip.” Alternately, find a nature television show such as on Animal Planet, and tune in for your cat’s viewing pleasure.
  • Playing familiar music that they associate with your presence can help ease the pain of you being gone. In addition, research has shown harp music works as a natural sedative, and actually puts cats to sleep. Harp music CDs designed for this purpose can be found at petpause2000.com.

NEW-CatCompet-lorezNot all tips work with every cat, since every feline is an individual. But using these techniques alone or in combination can heal upset kitty feelings, and turn homecomings into joyful reunions. You’ll find lots more tips in my cat behavior book COMPETABILITY: Solving Behavior Problems in Your  Multi-Cat Household.

What kinds of things have helped with YOUR cat? Do tell!

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  1. With Anubis, we have specific goodbye rituals that help him to understand how long we will be gone. He gets much more worried if you act like you’re just going to be gone for a minute and then disappear for longer. For example, “next door” usually means we are only going to be gone a couple hours at most. But I stayed overnight with my grandmother this past week, and he got SO UPSET. Thankfully he USUALLY doesn’t mess on the carpet anymore just for us being away, but he does fuss quite a bit when we get back. Part of what seems to help is he knows he always gets a treat when we come back from being away, so we make it worth the wait.

  2. I’m sad to say that even after having a cat for 13 years, I’m very uneducated about cat issues. (I’m going to say its just because my own cat is purrfect.) Thanks for sharing this information.

  3. Great advice ! What helps us (we don’t suffer of separation anxiety) is that our pawrents have a super-regular schedule, and their schedule allows that we are not really alone more than four or five hours in a day. Purrs

  4. There is clearly not as much difference between cats and dogs as people think. My Chester used to have anxiety and acted out very similar to what you described. I helped him with desensitization and crate training. Now a crate is something no kitty would stand for! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Litter Box Problems? 7 Reasons Cats Snub the Box & What To Do

  6. I used to have a cat, Bluebird, who seemed to forget me if I had an overnight stay away from home. I’d come home and she would run away from me and refuse to eat for a meal or two. Soon she was back to normal though. She was always very high strung/sensitive. Unfortunately she’s not with us anymore but she’s always in my heart.

  7. We used to board our first cat, Shoddy, at a place near the airport when we went away. They told us he didn’t eat while we were gone and was miserable. So we started leaving him at home and having someone come in. He was still not doing well, We got a companion, a little cat named Missy. He would have nothing to do with her, but in a way it distracted him and gave him something to think about. He did better.

    One of our current cats, Smilo, developed the runs while we were away for two weeks. It went away when we returned. I guess that was a form of separation anxiety. He used the box, not the bed!