As the world returns to normal following the Covid-19 pandemic, there are changes ahead. Many of us will return to our workplaces, resume gatherings with family and friends, and begin traveling again. While these changes may be both exciting and healthy for us, our cats may experience stress and other separation-related problems as a result of our absence. In this article, I’ll overview what the research tells us about the symptoms of and the solutions for separation anxiety in cats.
One study on separation anxiety in cats appeared in 2020 in the US National Library of Medicine. This study reported that more than 1 in 10 cats may have separation-related problems. Depression during the owner’s absence was the most frequently reported sign, followed by excessive vocalization (during which time cats might carry a favorite toy in their mouths), agitation, and inappropriate elimination of urine. Cats with SRP might also display hyper-attachment behavior, excessive grooming, poor appetite, vomiting, and aggression.
For cats to be labeled as possibly having SRP, they must display at least two characteristic behaviors during their owner’s absence. In the 2020 study, destructive behavior was the most prevalent of these behaviors. Destructive behavior was demonstrated by 67% of the SRP cats.
The second most prevalent behavior associated with SRP was inappropriate elimination. This behavior was displayed by 60% of the cats diagnoses as having SRP. The study backed up the results of a 2002 report, in which Schwartz found a prevalence of 71% for inappropriate urination in cats with SRP.
In Schwartz’s study, three-quarters of the cats that peed outside the litter box did so exclusively on the owner’s bed. Other places where inappropriate elimination occurred were: on clothes, carpets, sofas, and chairs, underneath living room furniture, next to floor drains, and in plant vases and the kitchen sink. The studies concluded that inappropriate elimination might be most typical in places where there is presence of the owner’s smell, including that of pillows and shoes.
A diagnosis of separation anxiety should start with a veterinary exam that includes lab work such as blood and urine tests to rule out medical issues. Your veterinarian might also ask questions about your cat’s behavior. Videos of your cat’s behavior during your absence could be helpful in determining a diagnosis.
The 2020 study identified various factors that seem to influence SRP in cats, the most telling being that of the cat’s home environment. In sum, cats were more likely to show SRP problems if they lacked access to the whole house, other animals, toys, and the outdoors. In addition, cats were more likely to suffer from SRP if they were left alone in the house five to seven times a week and more than six hours a day.
The researchers of the 2020 study noted that many residences didn’t provide the stimuli that cats would find in the wild and so didn’t meet their natural exploratory needs. The researchers recommended the addition of environmental enrichment to alleviate the boredom and stress that some cats feel in their residences, and they contended that this in turn might allow cats to better cope with long-term separation from their owners.
The Five Pillars to a Healthy Feline Environment, created by The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), lists the following as essential components of a cat’s environment: safe spaces which includes the provision of hiding places and escape routes; sufficient resources which includes one feeding station, one litter box, and one scratching post per cat; and effective play.
With regards to the latter, the 2020 study stated that environmental enrichment might be as simple as the addition of toys. In the study, 13% of all the cats had no access to toys while 27% of the SRP group had no access to toys, making toys a possible factor of SRP. The Five Pillars to a Healthy Feline Environment states that for play to be effective, it should replicate the hunt-prey sequence that cats undertake in the wild.
In articles by other experts about separation anxiety in cats, other possible solutions included: ignoring attention-seeking behaviors, integrating relaxation exercises, counter-conditioning, developing routines, and using pharmaceuticals. The rest of this article will elaborate on these.
Ignore attention-seeking behaviors: Remain calm both when you exit and enter your house. Before you leave, provide your cat with activities to keep them busy while they’re home alone. After returning from an extended absence, wait until your cat is quiet before providing attention. Once your cat is showing some independence, praise them and toss a treat or toy to them to reinforce their behavior.
Integrating relaxation exercises: Pet MD encourages relaxation exercises, wherein you reinforce your cat with treats when they show signs of being in a relaxed state, such as lying down, sighing, having a loose and still tail, and closing their eyes. The exercise is paired with an item like a mat, according to Pet MD, so that over time your cat learns to become relaxed when they see that item. Once these relaxation exercises are learned, they can be integrated as part of your departure.
Counterconditioning: If your cat acts anxious upon seeing cues of your departure, such as putting on shoes or picking up keys, classical counterconditioning can be used. This changes the emotional response from a negative to a positive one. In an article from Manhattan Vet Specialists, Arnold Plotnick illustrates how to apply counterconditioning with the example of a flight attendant whose cat was possessive of him. He faked a few departures to teach his cat that his departures could be short. In these fake departures, he started by taking out his suitcases and grabbed his keys. Then he went over to Millie and played with her. The next day, he went to the door. The day after that, he left the apartment, but just for a minute. Over the course of a few weeks, he did this at least once a day, varying the time he spent out of the house.
Using pharmaceuticals: Pet MD advises that if behavior management changes alone aren’t enough, your veterinarian may recommend medication to reduce your cat’s anxiety. According to Pet MD, some cats benefit most from a short-acting medication that is only given before departures, while others benefit most from a longer lasting medication. Pet MD notes that goal of medications is to help cats cope with stressful situations more easily; if there are negative side effects, you should try something else.
Despite the traditional belief that cats are independent creatures that can therefore cope with long periods without their owners, recent studies are showing that cats can be social and as such can develop strong bonds with their owners. It stands to reason then that cats might react negatively to being separated from their owners. We as cat guardians owe it to our feline friends to understand the symptoms of and solutions to separation anxiety.