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July 13, 2020

Emotional Lives of Cats: Separation Anxiety

Cats can become depressed and/or develop unwanted behaviors when they are separated from bonded companions. Their cat-parents may be on vacation or spending long hours every day away from home. College, a new job, divorce as well as other life changing events that take people away from their homes can cause cats anxiety and depression. Being separated for an extended time from a bonded-someone can be problematic for sensitive cats, resulting in unwanted and sometimes destructive behaviors.

There is a large range of behaviors associated with separation anxiety. These include litter box aversion, destructive chewing, over-grooming and other OCD behaviors. Aggressions, hiding and lethargy can also indicate that cats are experiencing separation anxiety. And, cats aren’t the only ones affected—cat parents often become frustrated and stressed by their cats’ behaviors.  Unfortunately, this can weaken the relationship between people and their cats—causing more stress and escalating the behaviors.

There is hope!

The good news is that these troubled cats can be helped to feel secure in their world through specific activities and changes to the environment.

  • Scent. A special companion’s scent can help cats feel they haven’t been abandoned. An article of clothing worn by the cat’s person can be placed on the cat’s favorite sleeping area, just before the person leaves for the day. This also works for travelers. Before the favored human leaves for an extended time, articles of clothing with their scent on them should be placed in separate, sealed plastic bags—one for each day spent away. Every day, the cat sitter places a fresh article of scent-laced clothing where the cat sleeps.
  • Sound. A favored person’s voice can help calm cats when they are left alone for an extended time. Weird and crazy as it may sound, some people call their cats every day and leave messages on their voice recorders for them. This of course, only works with land lines and answering machines. Digital recordings can also be made, played by the cat sitter, or timed to self-activate at specific times on a computer. A radio tuned to a talk program or a soft classical music station can also help calm cats.
  • Environmental enrichment. Providing cats with mental and physical stimulation can reduce stress and anxiety. Interactive toys such as ball and tract toys, puzzle boxes and treat balls can keep your cat engaged and focused.  Cats also need vertical territory—tall cat trees, shelves and window perches to climb and nap on. Vertical territory, when placed next to secure windows keeps cats entertained with the goings-on in the neighborhood.
  • A friend. Some people think that adopting another cat will help resolve their cats’ separation anxieties. Sometimes bringing a new cat friend home can ease the situation but it can also horribly backfire—causing the resident cat to become more stressed and unhappy. Every cat is an individual, with his and her own distinct personality and likes and dislikes. Some cats do well and thrive with a new cat buddy, others do not. Cats who have a history of enjoying the company of other cats are more likely to adjust to a new addition after they are gradually introduced to each other.

This is a brief list. There are many other force-free methods and activities that can help relieve cat’s stress and anxieties. Depending on the situation, the people and the cats, some of these suggestions are more effective than others.  A good, certified, science-based cat behaviorist can help formulate a plan that will reduce and eliminate stress and anxieties.



Cat Basics: Emotions

When I was a child, people used to tell me that cats are easier to keep as pets then dogs. Dogs needed more attention and they had to be walked and played with every day. People would say that cats only needed food, water and a litter box—they were self-sustaining and indifferent, not needing or wanting attention from their people. Families I knew didn’t bat an eye at leaving their cats alone for the weekend with no one to talk to or anything to do—they would fill their food bowls with dry food, top off the litter box and give them a large bowl of water.

The Emotional Lives of Cats

Although many people are more enlightened today about cats then when I was a child, some misconceptions about them persist. One of these is that cats are aloof, loners and don’t particularly need people except at dinner time and when the litter box needs cleaning. Cat-loving people who share their worlds with cats know this isn’t true. Unfortunately, there are others who, to different degrees, don’t think cats are capable of experiencing strong emotional connections to people.

Cats are intelligent and they experience a wide range of emotions. Cats show their feelings in a number of ways, including through body language, vocalizations and their proximity to people. Many cats bond strongly to their people, following them from room to room, talking to their favorite humans with chirps and soft meows, others favor taking naps, nestled on a lap or in the crook of their human companion’s arm. It is also common for cats to develop strong ties with another resident household animal, napping, grooming and just hanging out together.

Cats Grieve

Cats can also experience separation anxiety and grief when their favorite companion is away for an extended length of time or is permanently separated from them. Cats surrendered to shelters and rescue centers often display these behaviors as well.  Over-grooming, litter box avoidance and depression are a few examples of behaviors that cats can develop when they experience loss.  Sadly, some cats become depressed and stop eating when separated from a bonded companion or removed from their homes. Additionally, stress, grief and anxiety can compromise immune systems which often results in cats becoming ill. There are steps shelters, new adopters and cat parents can take to help cats adjust to their situations.

My next blog installment(s) will provide suggestions on how cat parents and shelters can help cats through times of grief, separation anxiety and adjust to new situations.