All too often, it’s easy to write off your cat’s bad behavior as simple naughtiness. Shredding your sofa to pieces, spraying, soiling outside the litterbox… that’s just your cat’s way of acting up, right? Wrong. According to animal behavioral experts, those attention-grabbing displays might have a very different and altogether more worrying explanation. Separation anxiety in pets is a very real phenomenon, and one we’re already familiar with in dogs. If the latest research is anything to go by, felines are just as vulnerable to its effects as their canine chums. During a recent study in Brazil, 130 cat owners were asked a series of questions about their cat’s behaviors and living situations. Of those, a significant 13.5% reported at least one behavioral issue tied with separation anxiety. So, should we be revisiting that age-old idea that while dogs might miss us when we’re not around, cats will carry on regardless?
More than likely, at least according to one of the researchers involved in the project, Aline Cristina Sant’Anna, professor of zoology at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil. “Some people believe that domestic cats are unable to develop an attachment to their caregivers/owners, but this idea was not confirmed by recent studies, showing that these animals can establish bonds with their owners,” she says. “Our study suggests that these animals might suffer when separated from their attachment figure.”
As the study shows, separation anxiety tends to be most apparent in households where the members are aged between 18-35, and where there are either no female members at all or more than one. However, while anxiety tends to be more common in cats from certain households than others, it can happen to any cat and in any household. Learning to recognize the signs and knowing what to do next is therefore crucial for all conscientious pet owners.
The Signs of a Distressed Cat
Cats tend to show their distress in several different ways. As Cat Expedition reports, you might have a problem if you notice any of the following:
- Excessive Vocalization
- Changes in Appetite or Weight
- Following You from Room to Room
- Destructive Behavior
- Eliminating Outside the Litter Box
Reasons for Anxiety
Despite their reputation for aloofness and independence, cats can actually be remarkably prone to anxiety. More than anything else, they love routine: if anything gets in the way of that routine, they’re likely to become stressed. As Sant’Anna’s study shows, cats of owners on the younger end of the scale tend to exhibit greater signs of anxiety than the cats of older caregivers….and it doesn’t take a degree to work out why. Compared to older pet owners, young people usually have less predictable lifestyles: they tend to be less disciplined in their routines, they travel more, have random work schedules, and are more likely to stay out at night than sit at home with their pet. If a cat literally doesn’t know whether their owner is coming or going, they’ll start showing their displeasure in a variety of undesirable ways.
Another way a household’s demographic can impact on a cat’s stress levels is in its number of female members. Cats raised in homes with one family member tend to do better than those raised in homes with either a multitude of women or none at all. “Maybe, for different reasons, the animals raised in households with no female adults or more than one female adult were less likely to develop secure and mentally healthy types of attachments with their owners in the sampled population,” Sant’Anna tells CNN.
Sometimes, destructive behavior has less to do with the age and sex of the owner, and more to do with how well they keep their pet entertained. While we’ve got the benefit of multiple entertainment sources, cats (of the indoor variety at least) only have what we give them. If you’re leaving your pet alone for long stretches of the day with nothing but your sofa for company, is it any wonder they end up taking out their frustration on that same sofa? Boredom in cats is a very real thing, and it’s important to recognize the difference between a cat that’s acting out because of separation anxiety, and one that’s acting out because they’ve literally got nothing else to do.
How to Treat an Anxious Cat
If you’re dealing with an anxious cat, some top tips to try include:
- Establish a Routine – Cats thrive on routine. While it’s not always possible to organize your day around your pet, try to be as consistent with them as you can be. Keep mealtimes to the same time each day, have regular time for play, and schedule plenty of one-on-one time. If your cat knows they don’t have to worry about you forgetting a meal, or leaving them alone for days on end, they’re less likely to feel anxious when they see you heading for the door.
- Scoop the Poop – Cats, unlike dogs, are fussy about where they make their deposits. Strange though it sounds, a dirty litter box can be a real source of anxiety for your fur-ball. Get into the habit of scooping the poop twice a day to reduce any chances of them choosing a new spot to eliminate on.
- Use Anti-Anxiety Aids – No matter how much we’d like to spend all day with our pets, work has a habit of getting in the way. If you think your cat’s anxiety might be linked to your work schedule, it’s worth investing in anti-anxiety aids like Feliway which can help your cat feel more relaxed when they’re alone.
How to Treat a Bored Cat
Cats are clever creatures and can get easily bored, especially if they’re left alone for long stretches of the day. Mitigate the effects by introducing plenty of puzzle games and foraging toys to keep them entertained when you’re not around. You could even follow Chewy’s advice and set up a camera with a talk feature to let you interact with them when you’re out.