As cat owners, we know how much our feline friends need us. It's clear that they love us and want to spend time together. Research even shows that cats feel more at ease when their caregiver is nearby (1).
Still, we often have to leave our kitties alone for a period of time. Whether you're going to work for the day or just running errands for an hour, being home alone can be tough for your cat. It's not uncommon for cats to experience separation anxiety when their owners leave the house.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help your cat’s separation anxiety.
In this article, we'll explore separation anxiety in cats, common signs, and how you can support your cat for a stress-free future.
Can Cats Have Separation Anxiety?
Unfortunately, separation anxiety isn't just "for the dogs." Cats can develop separation anxiety, too (2).
Separation anxiety is a medical condition. Generally, affected cats exhibit anxiety-related behaviors when left alone. Separation anxiety symptoms in cats — such as scratching furniture or accidents outside the litter box — can be frustrating to deal with.
Unfortunately, these behaviors can even cause some people to surrender their cats to an animal shelter. We'll cover the specifics of separation anxiety behaviors in cats below.
Separation Anxiety in Cats: Causes
Why do cats develop separation anxiety?
We don't know for sure, and research on this condition in cats is lacking, sadly. Still, we can discuss a few possible reasons for separation anxiety in cats.
Firstly, cats rely on their owners to feel safe and secure. Kitties with separation anxiety generally feel unsafe being alone. The associated behaviors are attempts to communicate and cope with fear (3).
In my opinion, former stray cats develop separation anxiety more often. They seem to remember going hungry with no one to watch out for them, or maybe they worry you'll never return.
Cats who are the only pet in the house can also struggle with being home alone. Again, it depends on personality. Cats are "social by choice" — some are happy to be your only pet, while others prefer company.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Cats
If you're wondering whether your cat has separation anxiety, there are key signs to look out for.
Common signs of separation anxiety in cats include:
- Excessive vocalization (meowing, yowling, or crying)
- Destructive behavior (scratching furniture or doors)
- Excessive grooming (bald patches, biting/chewing their tail)
- Urinating or defecating outside the litter box (often on the bed)
- Excessive need for contact when you return home
If your cat shows any of these signs when you leave the house, there's a chance they may have separation anxiety. You can take photos or videos of their behavior to help your veterinarian diagnose the condition.
Your vet can also determine whether a medical problem is causing your cat's behavior. Bladder infections, liver problems, and other illnesses can lead to the same behaviors as separation anxiety.
Sexually intact cats (not spayed or neutered) are also more likely to exhibit problematic house behaviors.
Separation Anxiety: Is My Cat Mad at Me?
Before discussing how to help a cat with separation anxiety, I'd like to jump onto my personal soapbox. As a veterinarian, I've heard cat owners say that their cat misbehaves "out of spite" or because they're angry with the caregiver (4).
To us, separation anxiety behaviors like urinating on your bed can certainly feel personal. However, rest assured that your cat is not mad at you; they are simply trying to cope and communicate.
Unless you've trained your cat to speak with "word buttons," they can't tell you when they feel lonely or afraid. A cat who urinates on the bed or destroys furniture is saying something like, "I'm overwhelmed, and I need help!"
Our feline friends also have a limited set of options to calm themselves. Over-grooming and tail-chewing can indicate your cat is trying to soothe their anxious feelings.
Our kitties can also be more sensitive to changes in the household than we expect. We may feel that nothing "major" has changed at home. Still, things like dinner parties, new people, or even rearranging the furniture can be frightening to our cats.
How to Help Your Cat with Separation Anxiety
If your cat shows signs of separation anxiety, there are many ways to help.
First, contact your veterinarian if you're concerned about your cat's behavior. Your vet will check for underlying health issues and help you build a stress-reducing plan for your feline friend.
Cat-Friendly Home: In the wild, cats are both predator and prey. They need a mix of stimulating toys and cozy hiding spots. I recommend a purring cat toy for anxious kitties.
Gradual Departures: Before leaving your cat alone for long periods, start with short stretches and gradually increase the amount of time you're gone. Put on some music or cat TV, if possible.
Behavior Modification: Consider working with a veterinarian or animal behaviorist to develop behavior modification techniques. These techniques can help your cat feel more secure when you're away.
- Cat-Sitters: If possible, hire a cat-sitter or ask a friend to check on your cat while you're out. Even if you're only gone for a few hours, a sitter can help build your cat's confidence.
Treating Cat Separation Anxiety
If your cat's separation anxiety is severe, your veterinarian may recommend medication. Medications such as anti-anxiety drugs or vet-approved supplements can help manage separation anxiety in cats.
I've heard pet owners worry about their cats needing to take medication forever. However, if you follow the steps listed above, your cat may only need anxiety medication for a short time. Medication should only be used under the guidance of a veterinarian and as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Things Can Get Better
Separation anxiety in cats is a common condition that can cause stress for both cats and their owners. By recognizing the signs of separation anxiety and taking steps to help your cat feel more comfortable when you're away, you can reduce their anxiety and improve their quality of life.
If you suspect your cat has separation anxiety, don't hesitate to consult your veterinarian about developing a comprehensive treatment plan. With a little patience and effort, you can help your cat feel confident, safe, and secure.