Guide to separation anxiety in cats after coronavirus lockdown

Cats are typically very independent animals. Due to the current Covid-19 lockdown, your cat may have become increasingly attached to you and when the restrictions lift and life returns to normal, the sudden increase in separation might be confusing and disorientating for your cat. Whether you’re leaving them alone for just a few hours or for longer periods, it can be a difficult time for the both of you. Although separation anxiety is rare in cats, it is useful to be aware of this potential problem. APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar has advice on this issue.

Separation anxiety is the stress felt when an animal is away from its owner – it’s a complex and potentially serious problem for some cats in the UK.

With the recent outbreak of coronavirus, restrictions have meant that pet owners have been able to spend more time at home with their pets. For most of us, this has been a welcomed aspect to a challenging period. However the extra time spent together may result in more cats suffering from separation anxiety, once the lockdown is over and you start to return to work. Separation anxiety can vary greatly in its severity and intensity and can be a real problem for some cats and their owners. Research conducted by Petplan found that growing concerns are emerging for the wellbeing of our pets with 49% of cat owners being most concerned about separation anxiety.

Petplan takes a look at separation anxiety in cats and what you can do to help your pet be as calm and comfortable as possible when the time comes for them to be left alone...

Why do some cats suffer from separation anxiety?

Cats are usually solitary and independent animals and for most cat owners, this is an attractive trait. Although cat separation anxiety is much rarer than in dogs, owners should be aware that some cats can experience anxiety when they are home alone. Certain breeds 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.

Separation anxiety occurs when an animal becomes overly attached and dependent on its owner, so that it becomes anxious when they are apart. 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.

With the current crisis, your cat may have become very used to having you at home all the time which may increase the likelihood of anxiety when you begin to return to work, or leave the house for longer periods.

Signs of anxiety in cats

While the symptoms of separation anxiety may differ from cat to cat, there are often some common symptoms that are displayed.

Cats suffering from separation anxiety might start spraying around the house, which is a common sign of stress. However be aware, 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 may be a sign of over-dependence and may mean that your cat is distressed when you are not at home. Stressed cats can also sometimes over groom, or under groom.

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 (which can sometimes be linked to stress). If your vet cannot find anything physically wrong with your cat, then they’re likely to refer you to a qualified pet behaviourist.

How to help reduce the likelihood of separation anxiety after lockdown restrictions are lifted

Although every animal’s journey will be different, the end goal is the same – to change the relationship with the owner so that the animal is not so dependent on them. As you may currently be at home together all the time, your cat may have become increasingly attached and it may be a good idea to help your 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The most important thing to remember with any anxious pet is that you need to be patient and understand that your cat is in distress. We must also remember than the coronavirus has not only changed the way we are living, but also the lives and routines of our pets too and that cats are incredibly intuitive and pick up on our own stress and anxiety. There is no quick fix to separation anxiety – and remember, it is rare in cats. 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 and try not to get angry with your cat.

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