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Q: I have a social cat who enjoys company, but I travel often and he becomes agitated in my absence. I have someone who checks in on him regularly when I’m away, but this doesn’t seem to help. What can I do to lessen his stress?
A: It’s a myth that cats are essentially independent. Felines, especially those highly bonded to their people, may become stressed when left alone, especially for long periods of time. Some felines may be OK with shorter daily periods of separation but may have trouble with longer absences.
Separation distress can lead to a variety of unwanted behaviors, including defecating and urinating outside of the litterbox (often on items that hold your smell, like bedding and clothing), excessive vocalization, anorexia, throwing up, destructive clawing and excessive self-grooming.
Your cat’s stress may start when he picks up on your departure cues, such as putting on your shoes or packing a suitcase. He may show his distress by vocalizing and clinging to you or by withdrawing and hiding. Your cat may also have a time limit: While he is not initially anxious when you leave, the longer you’re away, the more his stress builds.
If your cat seems on edge when you come home, this may suggest that he was stressed while you were away. While his stress could be the result of separation anxiety, it may also stem from a lack of regular stimulation and interaction, such as frequent petting or play.
This lack of activity and interaction with people can lead to a bored and anxious cat.
There are some simple strategies that can help your feline relax when you have to be away. Here are 10 ways to ensure you come home to a happier, calmer feline.
Talk to your vet. Start by involving your veterinarian, especially if your cat shows worrisome symptoms like urinating outside of the box, excessive grooming, missing patches of hair, vomiting, excessive vocalization and anorexia. These behaviors can be related to medical conditions that should be ruled out first to ensure your cat is in good health. In certain cases, cats who have severe separation anxiety may benefit from medication as well as behavior management strategies.
Prepare your cat with mini absences. Even when you’re home it’s important to give your cat limited periods of separation. If you take an all-or-nothing approach (the cat always has you around and then suddenly you disappear for long periods of time), the adjustment will be difficult for him. Even people who work from home or are on a long holiday, like summer vacation, should schedule time away to help their feline adjust. Separations can be short, such as walking to the mailbox or a quick trip to the store.
Remove departure cues. Cats pick up on cues that foreshadow a departure, like grabbing your keys or putting on your shoes. To help your cat adjust, remove the power of those cues by presenting them without anything happening. Pick up your keys, and then put them right back. Put your shoes on but stay in the house. Walk out the door and come back in. Turn on the car engine, and then turn it back off. You can also leave your suitcase out between trips to decrease your cat’s association of the bag with your departure.
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