Cats need their space, yes. That doesn’t mean they’re totally cool when left home alone, Kevin McAllister-style. There’s not a ton of research on cat psychology, but one study by Thunderworks, a company actively researching anxiety in animals, found 24 percent of cats suffer from anxiety, and at least 20 percent of those cats feel extreme separation anxiety. The longer this issue goes untreated, the worse it gets. Here’s what to look for if you think your cat might have separation anxiety.
Eliminating outside the litter box
If your cat is eliminating on your rugs or in your bed (please, no), it could mean they’re suffering from separation anxiety. As Dr. Amy Marder, a clinical assistant professor at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, told Manhattan Cat Specialists, defecating in an owner’s bed is fairly common in anxious cats. These behaviors can certainly indicate other issues like full litter boxes or aggression, but if you notice it only when you’re gone for extended periods of time or it gets worse when you leave, separation anxiety could be the culprit.
As cat owners know, felines produce a range of sounds. Chirping is friendly and playful. Yowling could indicate pain. In terms of separation anxiety, Dr. Sharon L. Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM at animal health company Zoetis, told us any excessive, relentless vocalizing could indicate a behavior problem brought on by your absence.
Dr. Campbell also mentioned if cats destroy furniture or curtains (again, beyond or worse than their regular destruction), it could be a symptom of separation anxiety, especially if it happens while you’re out.
Cats are groomers, and we don’t blame them—who doesn’t like to look as good as they feel? Which is why any bald spots should set off alarm bells. Pam Johnson-Bennett, best-selling author of eight books on cat behavior and star of Animal Planet’s Psycho Kitty, calls this disorder psychogenic alopecia. It’s basically self-sabotage for cats: They direct all their stress into grooming, often focusing on one patch or paw, so much so that hair falls out.
So, what do you do?
Roughly 67 percent of cats with anxiety aren’t treated for it, perhaps because owners aren’t sure if what they observe is actually anxiety or just average, weird, cat…stuff. So, always consult your vet.
One thing that may be beneficial before a vet visit is a video camera. Dr. Campbell advised setting up a camera to observe feline behavior while the cat is alone. This arms you with more concrete information to share with your vet.
Dr. Campbell also recommended focusing on your habits. A recent study by Nottingham Trent University and University of Lincoln found cat owner behavior directly influences cat behavior. So, don’t make leaving and coming home a big deal. Packing your bag the night before and avoiding jingling your keys on your way out in the morning shows you’re chill AF and your cat should be, too. Waiting a few minutes after getting home from work to pet your cat shows them this isn’t a celebration, it’s banal. Again, no big emotional associations with this routine.
Thunderworks has several products meant to soothe anxious pets. Most notably its Thundershirt Anxiety Jackets—designed after swaddling techniques for babies—calm cats with gentle pressure. It also might be worth getting another cat. As Thunderworks found, households with more than one cat had a much lower rate of anxiety than those with just one feline.
Dr. Campbell encourages cat owners to talk to their veterinarians about their cat’s behavior. Don’t be shy! Your vet is the expert and is in the best position to determine the cause of any strange feline behavior and the appropriate treatment options.
And when in doubt, give your cat a cardboard box already.