Ah, adoption day! You meet a kitten or cat, fall in love, and form an ever-lasting bond. Everything seems perfect until life happens and forces you to leave your furry soulmate at home…alone. Everyone talks about dogs having separation anxiety but no one warned you that your cat might not be as calm, cool, and collected about your departure as you assumed they would be. About five years ago, I rescued my cat, Olly. We clicked instantly and he adjusted seamlessly to living with me in my first New York City apartment, until I needed to go to work and he freaked out: wailing at the door, throwing up, and totally breaking my heart. If you have had this experience too, know that you are not alone. In this article, I will walk you through why and how cats might experience separation anxiety syndrome as well as ways to treat it!
There is a common misconception that cats are asocial and, therefore, incapable of experiencing separation anxiety. However, through her 2002 study and 2003 review, Dr. Stefanie Schwartz reports on 136 cases of separation anxiety syndrome in domestic cats. Based on her research and experience, she insists that domestic cats can develop separation anxiety because they are more social than many realize. In fact, they have a critical period of socialization just like puppies! In their 2004 article, scientists Sharon Crowell-Davis, Terry Curtis, and Rebecca Knowles detail the social nature of both indoor and outdoor cats. Though typically solitary hunters, even feral cats will form social groups called colonies if there are enough resources for everyone. Though the number of bonds may vary drastically between cats, cats choose others to be their partners in crime! These others include other cats, humans, and dogs (as is the case with my cat and my dog as well as some of the dogs I board at my apartment). Cats have so many ways of communicating using both their voice and their body. Purring, rubbing, grooming, and nose touching are just some of the ways they tell their buddies they love them!
Dr. Schwartz explains how, growing up with human parents, domestic cats have become more friendly and adaptable but also more baby-like since they have a maternal human to depend on way past kittenhood. Based on their 1996 study on domestic cat behavior and use of space, researchers Penny Bernstein and Mickey Strack claim that most domestic cats have become ingrained in their humans’ routines. They sleep with their owners. They eat with their owners. When their owners come home after a hard day at work, they greet them as they walk through the door. As a result, humans tend to view their cats as their children.
The Ainsworth Strange Situation test is famous for demonstrating healthy mother-child attachment. In this test, a human baby placed in an unfamiliar room generally feels more comfortable exploring the room with their mother than with a stranger, cries when their mother leaves them alone, and happily reunites with their mother when she returns. In 2007, researchers Claudia Edwards, Moises Heiblum, Alberto Tejeda, and Francisco Galindo adjusted this test to see whether domestic cats could form attachments with their owners like human babies form with their mothers. In their unfamiliar rooms, the cats were much more affectionate and comfortable moving around and exploring with their owners. They also only played with their owners! However, with the strangers, the cats were much more alert and fixated on the door, anxiously awaiting their owners’ return. Like the human babies, when the owners left the cats alone, the cats cried for them (with meows) and happily greeted them when they returned. The researchers agreed that the cats passed the test and were certainly capable of forming attachments to their humans!
Dr. Schwartz says that cat-owner attachments can be so strong that the cat’s separation anxiety looks more like phobia, panic, or bipolar disorder. For this reason, it is called separation anxiety syndrome (SAS) and not separation anxiety disorder (SAD), the term used for humans. If your cat’s separation-related distress goes beyond kittenhood, then you might have a SAS-sy cat on your hands! According to Dr. Schwartz, these are the four main signs of cat SAS:
- Peeing or pooping outside the litter box, most commonly peeing on the owner’s bed
- Excessively calling or crying for the preferred human when they leave
- Compulsively self-grooming, often causing baldness and/or irritation (more common with females)
- Destroying the house (more common with males)
Dr. Schwartz warns that a cat with SAS might also act aggressively towards their preferred human to prevent them from leaving the house. If your cat has any of these listed signs, be sure that you only see the sign or signs right before, during, or following your departure. Also, do not jump to any conclusions before seeing your veterinarian. All the warning signs for SAS can also be warning signs for various medical conditions.
Which cats are more likely to be SAS-sy?
Dr. Schwartz says…
These are our favorite “lap cats,” snugglers, and bathroom buddies, who follow us around like puppy dogs and never fail to make us feel special.
Cats who have only one owner
With only one owner, sometimes the attachment is even stronger than if there were another parental figure in the cat’s life.
Spayed or neutered cats
De-sexing is one the hallmarks of domestication, making companionship a priority over passing on genes.
Cats adopted from an animal shelter beyond 3 months old
Change is tough for cats, especially if they are anxious about another favorite human leaving them.
When cats get old and senile, separation can be disorienting. In Dr. Schwartz’s (2002) study, all the cats with SAS age 7 and up were female so older females might be more susceptible than older males. Dr. Schwartz suggests females might crave more social interaction since pregnant females can benefit from nesting with other pregnant females.
When he first struggled with SAS, my cat Olly checked all the paw print boxes except older age. I adopted him by myself from an animal shelter when he was 2 ½ years old. The shelter veterinarian neutered him that same year, so I am not exactly sure about his history prior to going to the shelter and being returned twice (the poor guy!). As you can see from his pictures in this article, he is also quite the love bug!
Dr. Schwartz claims that owner behavior can also trigger SAS onset. For instance, cats can start to become anxious if their owners do not spend enough time with them. This could be because of long work hours, frequent travel, or extensive time out with others. Cats can also develop SAS when there is a significant change. This change could be the death or removal of an owner or fellow pet, a change in owners’ schedules, or the introduction of a new romantic partner. Domestic cats can also be sensitive to owners’ mood changes and react anxiously so it might be difficult to tell, for instance, whether a cat is feeling anxious because someone has died or because their owner is grieving. Unfortunately, less than ideal life circumstances and changes are inevitable. You might find many uncontrollable events positive too! Fortunately, whatever the cause of your cat’s separation anxiety, you can help your cat recover with either behavior modification or a combination of medication and behavior modification!
First off, Dr. Schwartz warns not to encourage your cat’s separation anxiety by refusing to leave the house. Instead, gradually increase time away if possible. For example, I started out leaving my cat alone for just two or three hours and, as he adjusted, I kept adding an extra hour until I hit the maximum number of hours I would be gone in a day. Make sure to spend plenty of time doing activities your cat loves to do and introducing new, fun ones! Play and interact with your cat the most before your departure so that, when you are ready to leave, your cat is ready to rest.
Stay calm and leave your house the way it usually is when you are relaxing at home, with lights and some noise to keep the cat’s environment as consistent as possible. Personally, for my cat, I leave on relaxing movies, music, or television shows at a comfortable noise level for cats, which scientists Judith Stella and Candace Croney (2016) describe as “quiet conversational level.” Stella and Croney also recommend leaving your cat with interactive self-play opportunities, like puzzle feeders, to distract and entertain them. My cat has a maze with a light up ball inside, bottle caps and assorted balls to kick around, and a scratching post with hanging feathers to bat. If your anxious kitty has a tendency to pee or poop outside the litter box when you are away, you can also consider blocking off their inappropriate pee or poop spots or making these spots unattractive by adding citrus scent or sticky material. Reward your cat upon your departure! The reward should be your cat’s favorite treat, preferably one a little tougher to chew, so they can orally release some anxiety. I leave extra treats out for my cat when I need to leave for longer than usual so he can munch on them throughout my time away as well.
If behavior modification alone does not work, you can consider giving your cat medication but should not dismiss the above techniques. Just like with humans, medication usually only works when you combine it with therapy. Dr. Schwartz recommends benzodiazepines or tricyclic antidepressants but advises consulting your veterinarian to see what medication best fits your fur baby. If you are unsure about getting your cat prescriptions, calming treats are also great alternatives! My cat likes “COMPOSURE” by VetriSCIENCE Laboratories and “Calming Aid for adult cats” by Well & Good.
Thanks to research and practice with feline SAS patients, you and your cat can overcome separation anxiety! Confidence is key. Do not dilly-dally while getting out the door. Keep departures as quick, calm, and rewarding as possible! If time passes, your cat is still suffering, and you do not know what to do, please do not hesitate to contact an expert. It can be difficult to resolve your cat’s separation anxiety by yourself and an animal behavior specialist or veterinarian is happy to help. Your cat will thank you!
Bernstein, P. L., & Strack, M. (1996). A game of cat and house: spatial patterns and behavior of 14 domestic cats (Felis catus) in the home. Anthrozoös, 9(1), 25-39.
Crowell-Davis, S. L., Curtis, T. M., & Knowles, R. J. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 6(1), 19-28.
Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A., & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2(4), 119-125.
Psychology Unlocked. (2017, April 27). The Strange Situation | Mary Ainsworth, 1969 | Developmental Psychology [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_6rQk7jlrc&t=181s
Schwartz, S. (2002). Separation anxiety syndrome in cats: 136 cases (1991–2000). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 220(7), 1028-1033.
Schwartz, S. (2003). Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 222(11), 1526-1532.
Stella, J. L., & Croney, C. C. (2016). Environmental aspects of domestic cat care and management: implications for cat welfare. The Scientific World Journal, 2016.