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Behaviourist's corner

Guide to separation anxiety in cats

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Spending time away from our pets is always hard and owners are increasingly wondering whether their cat may be suffering from separation anxiety. APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar has advice on this issue.

According to the Petplan Pet Census 2018, the UK’s largest pet ownership census to date, 40% of pet owners believed their cat had suffered from separation anxiety - stress felt when an animal is separated from its owner.

If you’re curious about whether your cat is displaying signs of anxiety while you’re away, you could try installing a monitoring kit, which will record video footage of your cat’s behaviour. If your cat is filmed as being very restless, unsettled, possibly pacing about or repeatedly meowing, these may be signs of anxiety. An overly attached cat may also wait by the door that you left through. Be sure to speak to your vet about any concerns you may have about the behaviour you see.

What causes separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is caused by an animal becoming too attached and dependent on its owner, so that it becomes anxious when they are apart. This over-attachment could be the result of a kitten being hand-reared and so developing a particularly strong bond with its owner. Over-attachment could also occur when a cat becomes used to getting lots of attention whenever she wants it and having an owner who is around all the time. When the owner is suddenly not there anymore, an emotionally dependent cat may not be able to cope and is likely to display anxious behaviour.

Symptoms of separation anxiety

Cats suffering from separation anxiety might start spraying around the house, which is a common sign of stress, but this is where you have to be careful as a cat could be displaying this behaviour for a different reason. For example, something in the environment might have startled the cat or upset her.

You might notice that your cat constantly wants attention and meows if you’re not giving her enough. This is a sign of over-dependence and may mean that your cat is distressed when you are not at home.

With any concerns about anxiety in a cat, you should first seek veterinary advice to rule out any underlying health problems in your pet. For example, if your cat suddenly starts urinating in the home, it could be because of a urinary infection rather than a sign of stress. If your vet cannot find anything physically wrong with your cat, then they’re likely to refer you to a qualified pet behaviourist.

Treating separation anxiety

Although cat separation anxiety is generally less severe than cases seen in dogs, owners should be aware that cats can experience anxiety when they are home alone. Certain types of cat – usually the more exotic breeds such as Siamese and Burmese, as well as house cats – may become far more bonded with their owners and therefore are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.

Once it’s established that a cat has separation anxiety, the goal is to change the relationship with the owner, so they are no longer too attached. This is achieved by helping a cat understand that she can’t constantly be interacting with you. There are several things a pet behaviourist might suggest:

  • Look at your cat’s environment to make sure she has lots to do to enrich her life. A bored cat is more likely to look to her owner for stimulation. Cats like to be in control and one with a cat flap, with the freedom to come and go at will, may be less likely to suffer from separation anxiety.
  • Pheromone sprays and plug-ins, which are a man-made version of the substance a cat deposits when she rubs her cheek on your leg or furniture, can help in the home to relax an anxious pet.
  • Rather than give your cat attention every time she approaches you for a stroke, think about playing with her or getting a puzzle toy to put her food in. These are balls with holes in that you fill with kibble, which drops out as the cat plays with it.
  • In a severely anxious cat, medication from the vet might be necessary to relax them enough so that they can learn it’s OK to not always be with their owner.
  • Try not to make the mistake of thinking that getting another cat will solve the problem. If a cat has separation anxiety, this means they’re over-attached to their owner, not lonely. The anxiety of not having their owner with them will still be present, but could actually be increased by the addition of another cat. Territory is very important to cats and not all of them are happy living in multi-cat households.
  • Get other family members involved in caring for your pet. If it’s always you that feeds and plays with them, they’ll be more closely bonded to you. Teach your cat that she can have these things from a variety of people to ease her reliance on you.

The most important thing to remember with any anxious pet is that you need to be patient and understand that they’re in distress. Always seek professional advice and try not to get angry with your cat – she’s only doing it because she cares.

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