Guide to separation anxiety in cats

Whether you’re leaving your cat alone for just a few hours or for longer periods, separation can be difficult for both you and your pet. Although separation-related behaviour in cats is rare, it is useful to be aware of this potential problem.

Cats are typically independent animals, and they’re often happy in their own company. Nevertheless, if you have to spend time away from your cat outside of your usual routine, the sudden separation might prove to be confusing and disorientating for them.

Cat separation-related behaviour – often referred to by pet owners as ‘cat separation anxiety’ – is the stress felt by a cat when they’re away from their owner. When separated, cats can experience a range of emotions, including anxiety, fear, frustration and even panic or grief. Their reaction will vary depending on the nature of the individual cat, as well as the circumstances.

Separation-related behaviour can be a complex and potentially serious problem for some cats. A cat that is not used to being left alone for long periods can express separation-related behaviour when they find themselves suddenly apart from their owner.

There’s no set amount of time a cat owner ‘should’ spend with their cat, since every cat is different. Your cat might be used to you being out of the home if you work long shifts or regularly take holidays and arrange cat sitters. If, however, you mostly work from home or you’re a stay-at-home parent, your cat will be used to you being around all the time. If you then need to go away, or your job changes, your cat can find the change in situation stressful.

Separation-related behaviour in cats can vary greatly in its severity and intensity.

While the symptoms of cat separation-related behaviour may differ from cat to cat, there are some common symptoms to look out for:

  • Cats suffering from separation-related behaviour might start spraying around the house, which is a common sign of stress.
  • They might also seem restless, hide away, refuse their food or overeat, or – in extreme cases – suffer from vomiting or diarrhoea.
  • You might notice that your cat constantly wants attention and meows if you’re not stroking them or playing with them. This may be a sign of overdependence.
  • Stressed cats can overgroom or undergroom. Keep an eye on their coat and on any changes in their grooming habits that could be a cause for concern.

These symptoms could also be caused by underlying health conditions, so it’s always a good idea to visit the vet to discuss your concerns and rule out other possible causes for your cat’s behaviour.

If your vet cannot find anything physically wrong with your cat, then they’re likely to refer you to a qualified pet behaviourist, who will be able to help with issues such as separation-related behaviour.

Cats are usually solitary and self-sufficient animals. For most cat owners, this is an attractive trait. Cats are seen as relatively low-maintenance pets, although they do need their five welfare needs to be met and they like their own space. So, cat owners are usually free to be out of the home without adverse consequences.

If your cat starts showing signs of separation-related behaviour, there could be several reasons why:

  • House cats – that is, cats who never go outside – may become very closely bonded with their owners. Their owners are their sole source of food, water, entertainment and security. Therefore, they are more likely to feel separation-related behaviour when their owners aren’t around. Additionally, their ‘world’ is smaller compared with cats that have outdoor access and they are therefore more likely to react to the slightest changes in the home. Breeds of cats that tend to be kept indoors, such as Siamese and Burmese, are often more likely to suffer from separation-related behaviour.
  • Cats who have experienced a traumatic early life, or who have lived in many homes or shelters, can be more prone to separation-related behaviour.
  • If a kitten was removed from their mother too early, they may have needed to be hand-reared. This might mean they develop a particularly strong bond with their owner.
  • Over-attachment could also occur when a cat becomes used to getting lots of attention whenever they want it. When the owner is suddenly not there any more, an emotionally dependent cat may not be able to cope and is likely to display separation-related behaviours.

Although every cat’s experience will be different, the end goal is the same – to change the relationship with the owner so that the cat is not so stressed about separation.

There are several things a pet behaviourist might suggest to help calm your cat:

  • Look at your cat’s environment to make sure they have lots to do to enrich their life. A bored cat is more likely to look to their owner for stimulation. You could try getting puzzle toys to put their food in, or invest in an exciting scratching post with lots of levels to climb and play on.
  • Routine is important to cats, so make sure you keep to a regular routine for feeding, play and rest. Avoiding sudden changes in routine can help cats to feel more relaxed.
  • If separation-related behaviour is an issue for your cat, gradually increase the time that you spend away from them. Also, try to keep fuss and attention to a minimum and have the same cues when you leave to make it more predictable for your cat. Make sure that your cat has plenty of safe, high spaces to retreat to when they are in the house on their own.
  • Cats like to be in control, so if you let your cat outside, installing a cat flap will allow them the freedom to come and go at will. This may mean they are less likely to suffer from separation-related behaviour.
  • Get other family members involved with caring for your pet. If it’s always you who feeds and plays with them, your cat will naturally be more closely bonded to you. Teach your cat that they can have these things from a variety of people to ease their reliance on you.
  • Use pheromone sprays and plug-ins, which are a man-made version of the scent cats naturally make. Whenever your cat rubs their cheek on your leg or furniture, they’re leaving their scent. Increasing this smell in your home can help to relax an anxious cat.
  • 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. Medication should be used in combination with a behaviour modification plan developed by a qualified behaviourist.

Don’t get another cat purely to try to solve the problem of separation-related behaviour. Your cat will still feel anxious when you’re away, and their stress levels could even be exacerbated by the addition of another cat. Territory is very important to cats and not all of them are happy living in multi-cat households. If you think your cat may benefit from a companion cat, it may be worth discussing the idea with a qualified behaviourist first.

The most important thing to remember with any anxious or stressed pet is that you need to be patient and positive. A cat experiencing separation-related behaviour is a cat in distress and there is no quick fix for cat separation-related behaviour.

Whatever you do, never punish your pet for stress-related behaviour, such as scratching or spraying – it will only make the problem much worse. Always seek professional advice from your vet and a qualified behaviourist, such as a member of the Animal Behaviour and Training Council, and try not to get angry with your cat.

Back to top