Does Your Cat Have Separation Anxiety?: 10 Clear Signs

Written by Sam Hindman
Published: November 21, 2023
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We all know the caricature of the independent cat. Anxious for its owner to leave and finally have some peace of mind, we often see cats as these kinds of anti-social creatures. But, if you’re a cat owner yourself, you’ve probably realized by now that this stereotype is far from the truth. In actuality, cats are incredibly loving and are prone to attachment issues. Among these issues is one that is quite prevalent: Separation anxiety in cats!

What Is Separation Anxiety?

cat that is anxious or stressed

A cat with an insecure attachment style will display behaviors expressing anxiety and discomfort.

©atiger/Shutterstock.com

Seperation anxiety is exactly what it sounds like- a feeling of strong or grave discomfort when separated from a particular person or group of people. This isn’t just common in cats, as it is seen in excess in human and dog relationships as well. For instance, a toddler leaving their parents for school for the first time may experience separation anxiety symptoms.

In general, there are two kinds of attachment styles one can possess:

  • Secure Attachment: While your pet cares for you and enjoys having you around, they don’t show signs of distress when you’re away. When you come back, they aren’t over the moon in enjoyment.
  • Insecure Attachment: There are, traditionally speaking, three types of insecure attachment styles. Ambivalent, which is when the pet has an attachment that is too severe, avoidant, which is when the pet has a general lack of interest toward you, and disorganized, which is a confusing mix of both extremes.

What Causes Seperation Anxiety in Cats?

Close up photo of little cat drinking milk from her mother with other kittens. Cat nursing kittens

Something that might impact a cat’s susceptibility to separation anxiety is removal from their mother too early.

©Vitalii Stock/Shutterstock.com

Candidly, there is no single concrete answer to this question. In reality, there are a number of factors that play a role in a cat’s development of separation anxiety, and in truth, many of those reasons have little or nothing to do with their owners. It’s an equal balance of nature and nurture, meaning that some aspects aren’t controllable.

Here are some of the factors that could potentially create a stronger predisposition to separation anxiety in a cat:

  • Genetic factors (for instance, female cats are generally more likely to develop separation anxiety)
  • Living in a single-pet (or single-person) household
  • Being taken from their mother too soon/bottle-fed as a kitten
  • Only living indoors
  • Past trauma/Rescued from an abusive situation

Every cat has an entirely different personality, with unique social and stimulus needs. That said, even if the above items aren’t applicable to your scenario, that doesn’t mean that your cat is risk-free from having an attachment issue.

How Common Is Seperation Anxiety?

If you suspect that your cat may have separation anxiety, you may be right. There have been multiple studies indicating that the number of pets suffering from attachment disorders has been on a massive spike. Some studies have concluded that this is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many owners spent excessive amounts of time at home with their pets. Since the pandemic is over, and people have begun adjusting back to their day-to-day lives outside of the home, this abrupt change in routine has caused great confusion and feelings of abandonment in some pets.

Signs That Your Cat Has Separation Anxiety

Ginger tabby young cat sitting on a wooden floor looks up, asks for food, meows, smiles close-up, top view, soft selective focus

One common symptom of separation anxiety in cats is excessive meowing directly before or immediately after you leave the home.

©savitskaya iryna/Shutterstock.com

Before we get into the many signs and symptoms of a cat with separation anxiety, it’s important to note that some of these symptoms can be indicative of other health conditions. If you suspect your cat has separation anxiety, you should take them for a check-up with their vet in case there is a larger problem at hand.

On the inverse of that, some of the signs of separation anxiety are actually harmless on their own. If you notice just one or two of these issues are prevalent in your cat, there might not be a genuine issue on your hands.

Symptoms to Note While You’re At Home

  • Excessive Grooming: If you notice that your cat starts to groom itself to an unusual degree when you’re about to leave the house, take note!
  • Lots of Cuddles: This obviously isn’t anything bad on its own, but if your cat is the type to stay by your side constantly while you’re in the home, they may have an unhealthy attachment toward you.
  • Accidents Away From The Litter Box: A clear sign of anxiety in cats is urinating or defecating on your furniture as opposed to in their litter box.
  • Preventing You From Leaving: In some cases, cats will make a physical effort to block the doorway or loudly cry when you’re about to leave the home in an attempt to make you stay with them.
  • Scratching Furniture: Scratching is a stress reliever for cats, so it makes sense that when they’re under anxious conditions, they have an urge to do this.

Symptoms to Note When You’re Gone

  • Yowling: If you have housemates or attentive neighbors, ask them how vocal your cat gets during the minutes following you leaving the home. Often, cats with separation anxiety cry quite loudly once they realize you’ve left.
  • Lack of Eating or Drinking: Try filling up the food and water bowl right before you leave the home to observe whether or not your cat is actually eating and drinking while you’re gone. When you return home, watch and see whether or not they rapidly chow down on that food upon your arrival.
  • Uncharacteristic Destruction: With all of the energy that anxiety brings, a typically well-behaved cat might resort to destruction. Whether that’s scratching the doors and furniture or ripping something apart, this is a common symptom of separation anxiety.
  • Vomiting: Though this one is more rare than the others, some cats have an instinct to vomit when under distress. If your cat experiences this symptom, get them to the veterinarian immediately, as it could also indicate other serious issues.
  • Disinterest: Some cats with separation anxiety will not move a muscle while you’re away. If you notice that you come home to your cat sitting in the same spot as when you left, you can assume that it’s because they haven’t felt the urge to do anything while you were gone.

How To Help Alleviate Separation Anxiety in Cats

Devon Rex sitting on comfy bed

Establishing a consistent routine has been proven to have excellent impacts on a cat’s behavior.

©iStock.com/insonnia

If you notice that your cat has been experiencing the listed symptoms, and suspect that they suffer from separation anxiety, the next thing you’re likely wondering is how you can help them feel more safe and secure while you’re away from home. We all wish we could spend every waking moment with our pets. However, this just isn’t possible! That’s why it’s important to do what we can to make them feel comfortable during the time we need to spend outside of the home.

Adjust Their Environment And Your Routine

The first thing you can do is attempt to give them a more comfortable space while you’re away. This includes getting them new toys that promote independent enrichment, or leaving on a TV show or radio station while you’re gone so they have some background noise.

It can also be helpful to try not to make a large fuss when you come and go from the home. Announcing to them when you’re leaving might only leave them more stressed, whereas a casual attitude can show to them that you’ll be back shortly.

Life can be hectic, and often unpredictable. Despite this, cats thrive on routine. If you try to establish a consistent routine, it can make your cat feel far more comfortable when you leave.

Discuss With Your Veterinarian

Some have found that with instances of severe separation anxiety in cats, medication can be helpful. These medications can help the cat cope with their stress and overwhelming anxiety, especially if behavior adjustments aren’t cutting it. Of course, have a deep discussion with a veterinarian before insisting on medication. They might be effective for some, but for others, their side effects may outweigh their benefits.

Things to Avoid

There are some things that you might be considering in order to change your cat’s behavior that, in actuality, have the potential to make that behavior far worse. One of these is adopting a new cat or kitten. You might think to yourself that the cat is lonely while you’re gone and that this is the source of their anxiety. But, the truth is that it has nothing to do with other cats and everything to do with you!

Bringing in a new cat does not guarantee improved separation anxiety. If anything, it might stimulate feelings of replacement or abandonment and can make the anxiety your cat is feeling far worse. This isn’t true in every case, but generally speaking, the last thing that an anxious cat wants is a profound environmental adjustment.

Perhaps the most important thing to avoid, though, is punishment. It is imperative that you understand, regardless of how agitating their behavior may be, that it isn’t their fault. Much like depressive or anxious symptoms in a human, a cat has no choice in regard to the symptoms of their attachment conditions. They aren’t doing anything to spite you or intentionally anger you, so don’t react as if they’re doing something “on purpose.” They might want your attention, but reacting with negative attention will only confuse and hurt them further.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Kitirinya/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Sam Hindman is a writer at A-Z animals covering a range of topics, including pet care, plant care, pest control and travel destinations. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Multimedia Studies at Point Park University, set to graduate in the spring of 2024. A resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when she isn't writing, she's spending time with her beloved cat Archie.

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