Comparatively, it is true that cats are lower maintenance than dogs and can be left alone for longer periods of time. However, they are actually more dependent than we think and rely greatly on humans for companionship and care. This misconception that cats require little or no care causes many felines to suffer emotionally and physically. A cat may not display separation anxiety as obviously as dogs, so it can be easy to overlook the signs that your cat is confused or stressed.
Cats are social creatures who can develop very strong bonds with their humans and, therefore, can experience loneliness and anxiety when left alone for long periods of time. Cats who are orphaned or weaned too young, cats who were not properly socialized, cats who exhibit very clingy behavior, cats who seem to favor one person in their home, and cats who do not have a stimulating and enriching environment (and therefore seek out humans for interaction) may be more prone to separation anxiety.
If when leaving town, your cat exhibits any of the following behaviors: restlessness, excessive meowing, decreased appetite or inappetence, aggressive behaviors, inappropriate elimination (urinating or defecating outside of the litter box), excessive grooming, and eating too quickly, they may be experiencing separation anxiety.
Please remember, any behavioral issues may have an underlying medical cause and should always be ruled out first by a veterinarian. Once your cat is diagnosed with separation anxiety you can confidently proceed to behavior modification and training tips. When working with separation anxiety, it will be important to not only reduce your cat’s stress, but also increase the enrichment in their environment.
Look around your home from your cats point of view? Is it stimulating enough for your feline friend? Consider adding more elevated areas, increasing vertical space with shelves and cat trees, hideaway spots, perches, puzzle boxes and rotating toys to spruce up their environment. Incorporate puzzle feeders* and activities into your cat’s life while you are home with them first. By creating a routine you will also be building confidence in your feline around these new enrichments, making them more comfortable while you are gone. Move their meals or treats to new spots around the home. Rotate out new interactive toys like catnip mice and crinkly balls and hide them in different spots daily. Play with them mornings and evenings with a fishing pole type toy like the da-bird, cat dancer, or cat charmer. By adding these new routines into your cats daily schedule he will have something to look forward to each day and you will have a better chance of success of them working when you are gone.
Having a cat tree or window perches is a great way to provide enrichment of the outdoors for your cats! I love cat trees placed near windows because they serve multiple purposes all in one: cat perch, scratching post, climbing furniture, sleep spot, hiding hole, creates vertical space and is a front for seat for safe bird watching.
When trying to help move your feline away from an unwanted behavior, do not reward them with attention when they are meowing and being demanding. Instead, reward them when they are displaying wanted behavior by pets, treats, praise, affection and attention. Reward only when they are quiet and when they show behaviors you would like to see again. Do not reinforce unwanted behavior.
Every day, engage your feline in interactive play time. If you can manage this twice daily (am and pm) it will increase the chances of success. Otherwise, conduct a nice long play session right before bed with a fishing-pole type toy and using motions to mimic that of a cat’s prey. Make the toy go behind pieces of furniture, under rugs, around corners, hop or jump onto furniture, etc. Always allow a few “catches” by your cat, too, and when winding down play time end it with your cat “catching” its “prey.” If you do not end things that way, you will leave your cat revved up with excess energy that they won’t know what to do with, often leading to immediate destructive or annoying behaviors.
Don’t make a big deal about leaving when it comes time to head out the door. If you suspect your feline suffers from separation anxiety, having a big goodbye scene is only going to make things worse. Cats are very in tune with their human’s feelings and will pick up on any stress or anxiety you are experiencing. So make your goodbyes casual or your cat may think it’s a much bigger deal than it is.
Practice your routine of leaving the house. If your cat gets tense at the sound of you picking up your keys or putting on your shoes, do that multiple times throughout the day without actually leaving. Pick up your keys, put them back. Put on your shoes, take them off. Put on your coat, take it off. And then do all three of these things: pick up keys, put on shoes and jacket and walk to the door. Do this a few times without actually leaving. Slowly work up to actually walking out the door and returning immediately. Each time you walk back into your home, casually greet your cat with attention or a little play time. Vary the times you do these training sessions throughout the day or evening and gradually spend longer and longer outside the home.
Leaving music on low may be a good option to mask any anxiety-provoking sounds from outdoors. Set the radio to classical or soft music, or play bird sounds. There is music made for cats you can purchase and play while you are gone. Cat TV is also another option of distraction for your feline. Put on a DVD or play cat TV (birds jumping and flying around, squirrels racing about, etc.) on your laptop. The internet has some great options for cat TV, or you can easily find DVDs to purchase.
Lastly, for extreme cases, your cat may benefit from medication on top of behavioral modification. Talk to your veterinarian (or behaviorist) about your options. Medication should not be used in lieu of the above tips. Your veterinarian will prescribe something with your cat’s specific needs in mind, so please don’t try ordering something online or using holistic or over the counter medications without consulting a professional first.
*If you notice your puzzle feeder full of treats or kibble has been left untouched when you get home, it may be that your cat was too stressed to eat. Cats who don’t eat while their human is not around may need more companionship and social interaction. Have your pet sitter stay at your home or come multiple times a day for a few hours. Make sure someone is present for each feeding and can provide company and ensure your cat is eating. Working a long day? Hire a professional or have a friend stop by to feed your cat(s) and provide company!