Helping Your Cat with Being Left Alone & Separation Anxiety

Whether to leave your cat or kitten home alone and for how long is a question on every cat parent’s mind, especially for the first time. Cats and kittens can get separation anxiety like children do, so here are some tips to help identify it and how to help your furbaby deal with you being gone.


Preparing Your Cat for Separation or Your Return to the Office

Preparing your cat for your return to the office

If your kitty is quite used to being around you most of the time and that changes, your cat may experience separation anxiety. In general, cats aren’t big fans of change at all, and a change such as you being gone for hours at a time when they’re used to being around you can be distressing.

If you adopted a new cat or kitten during the 2020-2021 global pandemic, the only life they’ve known may no longer be the norm after society opens back up. You may start working in an office again, traveling, or taking a vacation, which will take you away from kitty for hours or days at a time.

Change can be tough for humans and felines alike. Here are some tips for how to know if your cat is experiencing separation anxiety from being away from you after you’ve returned to the office or changed your routine to be away from them more often.

What is Cat Separation Anxiety?

Cat with separation anxiety from owner

As in humans or dogs, separation anxiety in cats is an emotional response of stress, fear and/or sadness when they are away from the person or other animal with whom they are bonded and feel safe, secure and loved. Separation anxiety can range from mild to severe and be harder to spot in cats.

While plenty of people are fond of saying that cats are aloof and don’t care about their humans, cat parents (and veterinarians and animal behaviorists) know that simply isn’t true. Cats do bond with their humans and the secure attachments they form are what help them feel safe and comfortable to explore and play in their environment.

For some kitties, the absence of the person (or people) or other animals (another cat or family pet such as a dog, rabbit, ferret or even a pig) causes them distress and anxiety. But it is true that cats are notoriously good at masking their pain – physical or emotional – so it may be harder to spot the signs that your cat or kitten has separation anxiety.

Signs of Anxiety in Your Cat or Kitten

It can be harder to spot the signs of anxiety in your cat or kitten because some of the behaviors are subtle and can also happen for other reasons. The big thing to watch out for: do these behaviors correlate to you preparing to leave, leaving, or do you see evidence of them upon your return.

  • Excessive grooming. If you notice your cat compulsively grooming for long periods of time or grooming specific spots over and over, that is often a sign of anxiety.
  • Missing patches of hair. Excessive grooming can lead to rubbing all the fur off their stomach, sides, or tail.
  • Refusal to eat or eating too fast. Anxious kitties often will go without eating but some cats can eat too much out of boredom. Another way cats can show anxiety can be eating too much too fast, which often leads to vomiting.
  • Going outside the litter box. While a dog with separation anxiety may chew your walls or destroy the couch, a cat is much more likely to show anxiety by not using the litter box. Peeing on the floor (or in your shoes, clothes or bed – something with your smell) is not done out of spite but out of discomfort, distress or nerves – or another medical needs such as a UTI or kidney issues. Get some tips for how to deal with litter box issues.
  • Vomiting. Some cats just vomit more than others, but if kitty starts vomiting more often, especially while you’re gone, that can be a sign of distress.
  • Destructive behavior. Again, while an anxious cat left alone isn’t going to destroy your house, a sign of distress can be clawing furniture, curtains or carpet repeatedly, leaving noticeable scratches and missing fibers. Knocking down many objects can be another sign.
  • Excessive vocalizing. If your cat howls or meows loudly and persistently as you leave, they are likely feeling some anxiety. Check with a neighbor to see if they hear your cat crying while you’re gone.
  • Over-exuberant behavior upon your return. Some cats are more chatty than others and will tell you about their day while your gone, but a cat who is so excited to see you again and very clingy at your arrival may have been feeling anxiety at being separated.

How to Help Your Cat With Separation Anxiety

If your cat is displaying symptoms of separation anxiety, there are some things you can do to help lower your cat’s distress.

  • Leave the TV or a radio on while you’re gone. This can help the cat feel less alone as well as give them something to be curious about. Try something with human voices or alternatively try bird videos or aquariums that cats enjoy watching.
  • Try a Wi-Fi camera that you can talk through. Talking to your cat through the camera’s speaker helps your cat hear your voice. This may help lower your anxiety about kitty being at home alone, too!
  • Position furniture or install a kitty perch so your cat can see the outside.
  • Leave an article of clothing with your scent for your cat to snuggle with.
  • Put your cat’s food inside a puzzle feeder or treat dispenser to stimulate them and give them something fun to do while you’re gone.
  • Provide a stimulating environment for when they’re alone: think hideaways and tunnels, cat trees and perches, hanging toys with catnip and interactive toys.
  • Leave quietly while your cat is otherwise occupied. Don’t play with your cat or pick him up for hugs and affection right before walking out.
  • Remove the association of certain actions with separation. If specific actions like picking up your keys or putting on your shoes trigger anxiety in your cat, start doing that several times a day when you’re home and not leaving to disassociate that action with your leaving.
  • Pheromone diffusers or sprays can helps lower anxiety in some cats.
  • Hire a pet-sitter to come in to spend time with kitty, play and offer pets if you’ll be gone for an extended period of time.
  • Get a friend for kitty. Some pets enjoy having another pet around as a companion, but not all do, so test it out before committing to a full adoption.
  • Help from your vet. Your vet may recommend anti-anxiety medication in some cases. Check with your vet if your cat has extreme separation anxiety that is resistant to other behavior modifications.

Helping Your Cat Adjust as You Spend More Time Away from Home

If you’re going to be transitioning to a new job or different circumstances that have you away from kitty more often than they’ve previously known, you can help prepare your cat for the upcoming change. Here are some ways to help ease the transition:

  • Keep routines the same as much as possible. Cats are creatures of habit and know when you get up, when you go to the kitchen, when you feed them, etc. If you and kitty always play with the feather toy in the morning while you have your coffee, keep doing that as part of your cat’s looked-forward-to activities.
  • If routines must change, such as the time certain activity happens due to a new schedule, try to move the activity to a new time bit by bit until you’re doing the new routine. This may help you transition to the new schedule, too!
  • Start a new routine that your cat can look forward to, such as a game or time of attention when you come back home.
  • Introduce a new toy or perch or hideaway several days prior to making the change so kitty can get used to it and feel comfortable with it before you’re gone.
  • Don’t make other big changes such as the type of litter or where you put the box while you’re changing when you’re going to be home or away from kitty more than usual.

Of course, sometimes you can’t follow all – or any – of these tips due to circumstances in life such as moving or changing jobs quickly. If that happens, monitor your cat for signs of distress, be patient, and do your best. Your vet or cat behavior specialist is a good person to consult to help kitty learn the new routine and minimize their separation anxiety. Soon you’ll be seeing signs your cat is happy instead of signs of distress.

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