Cat with Separation Issues: Understanding the Signs and How to Help
While separation issues are very common in dogs, they are also experienced by cats who feel lonely and stressed when their owner leaves them. If your cat is behaving oddly or acting out while you’re at work or on a trip, your cat might be experiencing separation stress and they might need some help.
The first step to dealing with any behavioral issue as a pet parent is identifying what your cat is trying to tell you. Let’s look at some of the common signs of separation stress, how to help your cat calm down, and how to prevent the development of separation issues in a newly adopted cat or kitten.
Signs of Separation Issues in Cats
If the cause of your crazy cat is separation stress, they will show normal indicators of stress, but those indicators will be directly correlated to your leaving the house or being away for extended periods of time. For example, one sign of stress is when a litter-box trained cat refuses the litter box and goes to the bathroom somewhere else in the house. If your cat does this while you are home and available to play with them, it’s unlikely that the cause of their stress is separation-related.
If your cat shows some of these stress signals when you leave the house, it might be experiencing separation issues:
- Going outside the litter box
- Excessive shaking or vocalization while you’re away
- Avoiding food or loss of appetite while being boarded or with a cat sitter
- Inappropriate aggression
Unusual Bathroom Behaviors Are a Common Sign of Cat Separation Stress
One of the most common signs that a cat is experiencing separation stress is when they refuse to use the litter box and instead go to the bathroom in the house. Cats are very easy to litter box train and they prefer using the box, as they have a natural instinct to concentrate their waste in one place. So if they are using the bathroom around the house in random areas, it’s a definite sign that something is wrong. The first thing you should do is see your veterinarian to make sure there isn’t an underlying physical or medical problem such as a urinary tract infection or kidney issue.
If you’ve ruled out a physical cause, and you're keeping the litter box clean – because cats won’t want to use a dirty box – and you’re still noticing “accidents” when you get home from work or a weekend trip, you can probably identify that behavior as a sign of separation stress in your cat.
Watch Your Cat on a Home Camera for Stress Indicators
Some signs of separation stress will only appear when you aren’t at home, so if you suspect your cat is suffering from separation issues, you should consider investing in a home camera that allows you to watch your cat while you’re away. If you see your cat pacing, trembling, or shaking excessively while you’re gone, it’s likely they are freaking out about being away from you. Similarly, many cats will demonstrate their stress by mewling or vocalizing excessively. Watch your cat (or consult your neighbors) about these signs to see if your cat is demonstrating them while you’re out of the house.
Appetite Loss and Food Avoidance Are Stress Signals
Stress can very directly impact your cat’s diet and appetite. Cats have sensitive digestive systems and their eating habits are very particular, so a cat that feels stressed by your absence will probably act weird with their food. If your cat sitter or boarding house reports that your cat won’t eat while you’re out of town, separation stress is the likely culprit.
Overgrooming or Excessive Coat Licking
It’s normal for cats to lick their fur and groom themselves, but this can sometimes get out of hand for stressed-out cats. Some cat parents have reported coming home to find that their cat has licked themselves bald in some places because of separation stress. This will also result in many coughed-up hairballs, so that’s another symptom to watch out for. Overgrooming and coat licking to the point of baldness are not normal cat behaviors and should be concerning.
Inappropriate Aggression Surrounding Your Departure
One of the more obvious signs that your cat struggles with you being away is if they behave aggressively when you prepare to leave. Some cats who are experiencing separation issues might attack their owners’ hands as they go for their bag or keys, or jump on their legs when they put on their coat. Your cat may be communicating with you if they act this way. They’re trying to tell you they don’t want you to go because it upsets them.
How to Calm Down a Stressed Cat
Once you’ve surmised that your feline friend is suffering from separation issues, it’s time to employ strategies to help them cope and keep them calm. Here are some suggestions for how to calm your cat down when you leave the house:
- Minimize fanfare when you depart
- Desensitize your cat to your leaving habits
- Provide an interactive toy while you’re away
- Leave the TV or radio on
- Ensure all their needs are met by a healthy routine
- Consult your veterinarian and consider a cat sitter
Reduce Your Departure Cues
Many of us have a series of small habits that take place right before we depart the house, and these behaviors might be triggering for your cat. Think about your standard behavior right before you leave. Do you often call out a goodbye to your kitty? Do you set an alarm and jangle your keys and pull your jacket from the closet? While some of these behaviors are unavoidable, you should try to minimize the fanfare when you leave as much as possible.
Desensitization Works for Some Cats with Separation Stress
Alternatively, you can try to teach your cat to not be stressed by these indicators of your departure. Desensitization works for some dogs when it comes to separation stress, and the same strategy might work for your cat. Simply take part in your departure cues – grabbing the keys, saying goodbye, pulling your coat off the hook, and heading for the door – but instead of leaving, turn around and lavish your cat with love and attention, or give them a kitty treat. Doing this often enough can retrain your cat to associate your departure with a positive experience and possibly reduce separation stress, but this tactic doesn’t work with all cats. If you aren’t noticing a significant improvement in their stress signals after doing this for a few weeks, it’s probably not working.
Interactive Toys to Engage Your Cat
Sometimes a cat’s separation issues result mainly from boredom. Cats need a lot of mental stimulation, and when their owners are gone, it can be hard for them to stay entertained. An interactive cat toy can solve this problem by providing your cat with hours of engagement and keeping them focused on an activity, thereby allowing them to forget that you aren’t home. Check out our list of the 8 Best Interactive Cat Toys for Mental Stimulation and choose the best one for your kitty companion. Better yet, choose a couple – it’s good to change out these toys often so your cat doesn’t get tired of them.
Ambient Sound Can Help a Stressed Cat
Sometimes the solution to your crazy cat’s behavior can be to simply turn on the television or radio when you leave the house. This ambient noise, combined with your quiet departure, might help your cat feel safer and more secure while you’re away. Some streaming services even offer special “Cat TV” programs with birds and wildlife to keep your cat entertained. They might not even know you're gone, so their stress signals won’t crop up.
Double Check Your Cat’s Wellness Routine
Sometimes, separation stress can be an indicator that something is off with your cat’s typical routine. Maybe they get crazy when you leave because they aren’t getting enough attention otherwise, or their litter box is dirty, or they can’t reach their bed or cat tower, or they just aren’t getting enough sleep and nutrition. If your cat is demonstrating stress signals, it’s important to do a little audit of their daily habits and lifestyle to make sure they’re getting everything they need: plenty of your attention, consistent play and activity, a healthy diet, CBD calming support tincture, a normal sleep schedule, and consistent veterinary visits. It’s possible you can help your cat ease their distress just by tweaking some part of their daily routine.
Consult Your Veterinarian About Your Cat’s Behavior
If you aren’t able to mitigate your cat’s separation stress with these changes, then it might be time to talk to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can offer insight into other strategies for keeping your cat calm, including the option of an occasional cat sitter to visit with your animal while you’re away. Some cats will never be 100 percent comfortable when left alone, and those animals will need a new approach to care while you’re at work or on a trip.
How to Prevent Separation Issues in Your Newly Adopted Cats or Kittens
As with so many pet and human issues, separation stress is much easier to prevent than it is to manage. If you have a newly adopted cat or kitten, take these steps to help ensure that they don’t develop separation issues:
- Provide plenty of socialization early
- Maintain a consistent play schedule with plenty of toys
- Reduce environmental and schedule changes
Provide Plenty of Socialization
Early socialization is very important for a kitten and can also be a useful tool for a newly adopted adult cat. While adult cats will have other life experiences you’ll need to navigate and account for, kittens can be blank slates that allow you to create really healthy habits from the very beginning. When you introduce a new cat to your home, don’t overshelter them from activity.
While you don’t want to overwhelm your cat, and you want to offer plenty of opportunities for rest and alone time, you also want them to feel comfortable with people coming and going from the house. The more you can subject them to this movement early in life, the less likely it is that they will develop separation stress.
Play with Your Cat Consistently
Play and mental stimulation are key components of your cat’s wellness, and you should establish a routine for play early in their life with you. Try to play with your cat often and around the same times each day. When your cat knows what to expect as far as engaging with you, they are able to approach their day with more confidence and are less likely to feel stressed out when you leave.
While you are the best play partner, toys will also be integral to your cat’s experience. The predator-prey relationship needs to be modeled for your cat, and doing that is easiest with toys that can be dragged or waved to imitate a bird or small animal.
It can be helpful to associate play time with another daily marker, such as immediately following a meal or your arrival at home. Better yet, take five minutes to play with your cat each morning before you leave, so they feel fulfilled and cared for as you depart. The timing of the play matters less than the consistency, though – the important thing is that you provide moments of one-on-one engagement with your pet every day.
Minimize Environmental and Schedule Changes
When your cat knows what to expect, they are less likely to feel stressed out when you are away. One of the best ways to prevent your cat from developing separation issues is by keeping their physical environment consistent and also your schedule as predictable as possible.
Don’t move around their litter box, cat tower, food bowl, or bed unless you absolutely must. These items should be in easy-to-find and quiet places and they should stay oriented in the same way to prevent your cat from feeling stressed. Keep their eating times consistent – even snack or treat times. If you decide to come home from work and give them treats at lunch, make sure that’s a habit you can continue to maintain. If your cat knows when to expect your departure and arrival, they’ll feel more secure and be less likely to develop separation stress.
Avoid Cat Separation Issues with These Tips
If you have a cat who struggles with being away from you, it can be very stressful for both you and your pet. But with the proper strategies and approaches, you can avoid this outcome or handle these stress signals when they start to appear. You want your cat to feel confident and secure at home, even when you’re separated from them, so employ these techniques to help your cat cope with separation issues.