What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety, a condition that occurs when symptoms of anxiety develop in a pet when they are separated from their owners or caregivers, is more commonly associated with dogs than cats. This may be because signs of attachment and separation anxiety are more obvious in dogs, but this condition does occur in cats, although symptoms of anxiety are often more subtle. Because of their independent nature, and sometimes aloof demeanor, cats are not thought susceptible to separation anxiety. However, cats do form strong social attachments with their caregivers and can become anxious when they are absent. When the attachment becomes dysfunctional, symptoms of anxiety can manifest and create behavioral problems that need to be addressed, both for your cat’s comfort and yours.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Cats
Symptoms of separation anxiety in cats are more subtle than in dogs. Separation anxiety in cats can be grouped into physiological and behavioral symptoms.
- Excessive vocalization (meowning)
- House soiling - not using litter box, especially urinating or defecating on clothing or bedding of the pet owner.
- Excessive grooming - sometimes resulting in hair loss
- Bolting food
- Destructive clawing
- Clingy behavior -such as following pet owner from room to room, constantly trying to get attention
- Reclusive behavior
- Loss of appetite
Clingy or reclusive behavior may increase when the caregiver is showing signs of leaving. House soiling is often seen as vindictive behavior, but what your cat is really doing is mixing its scent with yours, trying to leave a “signpost” for you to find them and return home.
Causes of Separation Anxiety in Cats
Separation anxiety is the result of a dysfunctional attachment between your cat and you, the caregiver. Factors that may precipitate this dysfunctional relationship are:
- Lack of other social bonds with other pets or members of the family
- Orphaned cats may be more susceptible if dependency issues develop
- Change in environment or schedule can trigger anxiety. For example, a change in family dynamic, extended vacation, relocation or daylight savings time
- Boredom (lack of activity or stimulation)
- Lack of exercise
- Genetic factors may be a factor - high strung cats and some purebred cats such as siamese and burmese cats are more prone
- Depression or anxiety disorders
Diagnosis of Separation Anxiety in Cats
Diagnosis of anxiety disorder depends heavily on the elimination of any other causes of symptoms. For example, skin disorders that may account for excessive grooming, urinary tract infection or bowel disorder that may account for house soiling, or gastrointestinal disorders. To eliminate other conditions your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and possibly conduct routine blood and urine tests.
As a pet owner, any details you can provide your veterinarian on your pet's medical history and behavior will help them to diagnose your cat if separation anxiety is occurring.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety in Cats
Treatment for separation anxiety in cats falls into two main categories, behavioral modification and medication. Many cats can have their seperation anxiety addressed with behavioral modification. Your vet can help you with these techniques. In cats with biological factors contributing to their anxiety, medication may be required if behavior modification techniques do not adequately address their symptoms.
Behavioral therapy to reduce separation anxiety includes not reinforcing unwanted, needy, attention-seeking behaviour. Your cat should be rewarded when they exhibit, quiet, calm, independent activity. Stimulation in the environment to thwart boredom and distract your cat from separation issues include providing toys, cat trees, access to windows, puzzle feeders, and music or DVDs designed to stimulate cats. Exercise and playtime are also important in reducing anxiety in your cat.
If behavioral modification is inadequate at addressing your cat's separation anxiety, of if depression or anxiety disorder is present, anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed by your veterinarian. Anti-anxiety medication may be in the form of short acting-medications administered only in situations when your pet is likely to become anxious, such as diazepam, alprazolam and lorazepam. Long-acting medications that are administered on an ongoing basis to treat anxiety in cats include tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or serotonin agonists. The serotonin agnosis used in cats is buspirone, which may be used with other medications to treat household spraying issues. Benzodiazepines may be used to increase appetite in cats when appetite loss becomes a serious issue. Medications may have side effects including lethargy, dizziness, water retention and may affect liver and kidney functioning. Your veterinarian will exam your cat and may perform tests to check health and organ function before prescribing certain medications.
Recovery of Separation Anxiety in Cats
Behavior modification techniques recommended by your veterinarian should be implemented and any medications prescribed should be administered as directed. Technology such as pet cams, and environmental modification such as perch areas and special toys may be helpful at providing anxiety reducing stimulation. Your veterinarian will be able to make recommendations on effective activities.
Introducing another cat for company may make the situation worse and should not be attempted while your cat is still showing signs of recovery from their anxiety. If possible, a bird feeder in front of a window may provide a useful distraction for your cat. When available, a cat sitter that will play with and pet your cat when you are away for extended periods will be beneficial at reducing separation anxiety. Keep departures low key, and do not advertise your coming and going. A combination of behavioral techniques and medication, if deemed necessary by your veterinarian, should be effective at resolving separation anxiety issues.
Separation Anxiety Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My 13 year old male cat meows constantly when hes not physically touching a person or asleep. He mostly refuses to sit by himself and is aggressive about sitting on the couch or bed with us at all times. He is mostly attached to my partner so when she leaves or locks him out of a room, even the bathroom, he starts to meow very loudly and excessively. It wakes us up at night and all morning, he only stays quiet if I go get him from the other room and cuddle with him like a stuffed animal. If we ever don't want him on the bed with us at night he immediately goes in the other room and starts meowing. when we leave we hear him meowing the entire time we are gone, his ears get red and when we come back it shows that he was meowing to the point of exhaustion. It has honestly but a giant strain on our relationship since we've had him and it is reaching a breaking point.
Separation anxiety can be a difficult to manage and to resolve; and also may be unproductive. You need to condition Igor overtime to learn to be alone (which can be difficult); by making small changes in your routine and allowing him to be alone (but for short periods building up overtime). The numerous techniques you could employ are too varied to mention here, there are many useful articles online and also speak with your Veterinarian as it seems like Igor really stresses himself out when left home alone; in extreme cases like this medication may be useful to use in conjunction with behavioural modification therapy. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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