Lots of us get cats because we want an independent companion who can entertain herself while we’re away at work. It’s true that cats can be self-sufficient in many ways, but the sometimes surprising reality is they need us — they really need us — to give them companionship and love, as well as to help them learn to navigate the empty hours when we’re gone.
Cats in the wild don’t have this problem. They are busy throughout the day stalking, eating, sleeping, and then repeating the whole process multiple times. But our domesticated cats who live indoors can become lonely and frustrated when no one is around and there’s nothing to do. It’s not unusual for them to develop a problem more often associated with dogs: separation anxiety.
Yes, you heard it here first: cats can get separation anxiety. Any cat can develop it, but it’s most common in kittens who were orphaned at an early age or separated from their mother too early. Stress and grief can also be factors. For instance, cats who lose an owner to death or divorce may develop signs of the problem.
How can you tell if your cat has separation anxiety?
Your cat follows you everywhere. When you leave, he sulks, cries, wanders, seems depressed, or won’t eat. It gets worse. Cats with separation anxiety may express their dissatisfaction by eliminating outside the litter box, spraying urine on your bed or clothing, throwing up, grooming so compulsively that they develop bald spots, or scratching furniture or other objects. All of those behaviors are the cat’s way of saying, “I’m lonely, I’m bored, I’m scared, and doing these things helps me feel better.”
What they are not is revenge for your absence. Cats are sophisticated and smart, but they’re not capable of that kind of emotional leap. So tuck away the urge to punish your cat for his destructive behavior and take steps to help him feel more comfortable when you’re gone.
More stimulation, less loneliness and boredom
Enrich your cat’s environment — behaviorist-speak for making your house more interesting and fun for a cat. Here are some tips:
- Get some puzzle toys that will allow him to focus on “hunting” for his meals instead of on your absence. Load them with his daily ration of kibble and let him spend the day figuring out how to release it from the toy.
- Set up a tall cat tree with a view. The height — ideally, up to the ceiling — gives him a chance to do some real climbing, and birds and squirrels outdoors will give him something interesting to look at.
- Don’t have any wildlife? Leave the TV tuned to a nature channel or Animal Planet, or pop a wildlife DVD into the player while you’re gone. You can find some that are made just for cats. YouTube is full of videos for your cats!
- Give your cat more attention and playtime when you’re home, but wait to do so until you’ve been home for a few minutes. You don’t want him to be anxiously awaiting your return.
For severe cases, an antidepressant prescribed by your cat’s veterinarian can help, but it won’t solve the problem alone. You still have to help your cat learn to entertain himself.