Separation Anxiety: Cats Get It, Too

Some cats don’t fit the stereotypical “loner” profile and may freak out if you leave them for long periods of time. Fortunately, there are ways to help cats deal with this anxiety.

Lonely cat is not amused. By: lindsayloveshermac
Lonely cat is not amused. By: lindsayloveshermac

About a month after Tim and I moved into our new home, we adopted 2 striped barn kittens, Cricket and Kilah.

Cricket, the runt of the litter, had a greater need to be held and cuddled than her sister. She became my special girl.

A few months later, I went back to student teaching and came home to find that Cricket had eliminated outside the litter box.


“Ha,” said Tim. “Who got upset because Tammy wasn’t home all day to play with her?”

He was right. Cricket had feline separation anxiety.

Even Cats Get the Blues

Separation anxiety is something that we associate with dogs, not with cats. Dogs are pack animals and need that “pack,” be it human or canine, with them. Alone, they howl, whine, urinate and/or soil and chew chair legs. Nobody’s happy.

Cats — so runs the conventional wisdom — are loners. They’re more attached to places than to people. They subscribe to “cupboard love.” In other words, your cat doesn’t care if you’re around so long as his food bowl is filled.

As usual, conventional wisdom has the wrong end of the catnip mouse.

Not all cats fit the loner profile. Some are, as veterinarian Dr. Arnold Plotnick observes, “truly social creatures, and they developed strong bonds with people and other animals. When these bonds get disrupted in any way, cats may exhibit signs of separation anxiety.”

These signs can range from clinginess and poor appetite to over-grooming and outside-the-litter-box behavior. And — brace yourself — “outside the box” frequently means your bed.


There is 1 big difference between the feline and canine varieties of separation anxiety, says Dr. Amy Marder of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. “Cats demonstrate separation anxiety primarily when their owners are away for a few days. Unlike dogs, they hardly ever show signs when their owners are gone a regular workday.”

Helping Your Cat Get a Grip

A cat suffering from separation anxiety “may insist on being with the owner at all times,” according to MedicAnimal, with the cat even following “from room to room. When the owner gets ready to leave the house, the cat may sulk and hide or try to get between the owner and the door. When the owner returns, the cat may show an abnormally enthusiastic greeting.”

Nobody seems entirely sure what the root of the problem is. Having been orphaned or weaned too early may be a factor; so may having been abandoned and/or having spent time in a shelter.

This video shows a cat exhibiting separation anxiety after a family leaves to run errands:

You may never know the exact cause of your cat’s anxiety. But there are things you can do to alleviate it:

  1. Behavior modification. You can alter your routine and your behavior a bit. Don’t fuss over your cat. In fact, Drs. Foster and Smith advises ignoring her for 15 minutes before leaving and doing the same when you come home. They also suggest “leaving a distracting toy. Other toys the cat especially likes should be taken out just before the owner leaves, and put away once the owner returns.”
  2. The right stuff. Comfortable perches and cat trees/towers with toys attached to them, window-side bird feeders, cat videos…all these things will help keep your feline stimulated while you’re away. Or you can simply keep the radio or television on low for them.
  3. Anti-anxiety medication. Cats with severe separation anxiety may require medication. Skullcap and valerian tablets are a more natural alternative for treating anxiety. With all of these treatments, consult your vet first.
  4. The buddy system. Some cats really do better with a pal. Having somebody their own size around to play and nap with keeps them from pining for their humans.

Exceptions to the Rule

Not all cats go ballistic when their family is away. Pixel, an Abyssinian belonging to Corrie Gold Wilder, glories in attention, often wedging her head between Wilder’s and the phone receiver or taking over the keyboard when it’s in use.

When her people came back from vacation, Pixel didn’t freak or snub them. Instead, she celebrated by “jumping on my shoulders and kneading my back and head,” Wilder laughs.

There are those who would argue that Pixel was displaying a mild form of separation anxiety. I say it sounds pretty sweet to me.


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