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Separation Anxiety in Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Separation anxiety can affect cats. Massive publicity about a new pharmacological medication treatment for separation anxiety in dogs (Clomicalm, Novartis Animal Health) has clued most pet owners in to the existence and nature of separation anxiety in that species. In addition, many parents have heard of separation anxiety that affects some sensitive children going to school for the first time. But what most people don't know is that separation anxiety can affect cats, too.

Cats with separation anxiety don't howl and bay like dogs and they don't chew on doors and windowsills in frantic attempts to escape. Their misery is far less obvious and it sometimes takes a sleuth of an owner to appreciate what is going on. Separation anxiety in any species implies a lack of confidence and an over-dependence on others. It is likely that genetic factors play a role in increasing susceptibility to separation anxiety though environmental factors are ultimately responsible for its expression. Genetic factors include emotional sensitivity and a predisposition toward anxiety. Certain oriental breeds, such as Siamese and Burmese, may be more prone to develop separation anxiety than cats with more robust temperaments, like Maine coons.

Environmental factors often involve improper bonding experiences when cats are young. Orphaned kittens, early-weaned kittens, and pet store bought kittens are probably at the greatest risk of developing this stressful condition. Combine the sensitive personality with inappropriate early lifetime experiences and you have a recipe for disaster of this kind.

Signs of feline separation anxiety

  • Over-attachment to the owner, following that person from room to room around the house.

  • Distress as the owner prepares to depart (so-called pre-departure anxiety). This can take many forms but some of the more common presentations are meowing, sulking, apparent depression, slinking away, and hiding.

  • Vocalization (crying, moaning, meowing) right after the owner has left (you might need to set a tape recorder to check this sign).

  • Anorexia – the affected cat is often too anxious to eat when left alone.

  • Inappropriate elimination – often in the form of urine marking, though fecal marking may also sometimes occur. Deposits of urine or feces are often near to the door from which the owner has departed or are on that person's clothing, bed sheets, or other personal effects.

  • Vomiting - only in the owner's absence.

  • Excessive self-grooming. This starts as a displacement behavior but can progress to compulsive self-grooming, if unchecked. In the latter scenario, excessive self-grooming no longer occurs only when the owner is away but will also be expressed during the owner's presence.

  • Destructive behavior – rare, but some cats may claw and scratch door edges presumably in an attempt to escape from their solitary confinement.

  • Exuberant greeting behavior – as if greeting a long lost friend that they did not expect to see ever again.

    Treatment

    Behavioral: Though in dogs it is possible to train independence (train them to "stand on their own four feet"), this is much more tricky in cats. Some aspects of the canine program might be helpful (see Canine Separation Anxiety), however, such as encouraging the cat to sleep in a cat bed in an area where she will be left confined during the owner's daytime absences. Enriching the cat's "home alone" environment may also help. This can be achieved by means of:

  • Climbing frames positioned to give the cat a good view of the outside world.

  • Strategically positioned windowpane bird feeders ("Cat TV").

  • An assortment of mobile toys perhaps enhanced with catnip or hunting lures.

  • Putting the day's ration of kibble in a buster cube put down by the owner on leaving. Although cats with separation anxiety tend not to eat when left alone, hunger is a great sauce when other opportunities to eat are curtailed. The food puzzle should be available only when the owner is away and should be picked up the moment they return. Some caveats apply if cats refuse to eat for more than a day or so. Consult your local vet if this turns out to be the case and try to work out some kind of compromise.

  • Leaving on the radio. The "white noise" effect of the radio drowns out the otherwise perturbing sound of silence.

    Medical: If behavior modification by independence training and environmental enrichment do not work it may be necessary to resort to anti-anxiety medication for the cat for a while. Medications that might help include:

  • Clomicalm (clomipramine)– although only licensed for use in dogs, it can be used in cats "extra label" under proper veterinary guidance and may be helpful in feline separation anxiety.

  • Prozac (fluoxetine) – a human medication. Similar extra label precautions apply.

  • Buspar (buspirone) – a human anxiety-reducing drug that may well help some cats with separation anxiety (again use is extra label).

    Conclusion

    Although owners of dogs with separation anxiety are often concerned about the havoc wrecked on their homes in their absence or constant barking, cat owners do not have such issues to concern them. Cats are usually not as destructive as dogs in the way they express separation anxiety, and the problem may sometimes be overlooked; however, the emotional aspects of separation anxiety still exist. Severely affected cats find themselves in an insufferable predicament when their owner leaves and may experience almost uncontainable anxiety. While cats occasionally express their suffering overtly in ways that their owner finds unacceptable, for example, by urine marking or hair-pulling ["psychogenic alopecia"], less obvious forms of the condition should be recognized and treated for humanitarian reasons. Ask not what your cat is doing to your home, only what you can do to improve its existence.

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