Cat on bed
Are you frustrated when you come home to find that your cat has peed on your bed and shredded your favorite chair? Do the neighbors complain that he yowls all day? While there can be underlying medical conditions behind many of these behaviors, you might be surprised to learn there’s a chance your cat has developed a fear-related condition called separation anxiety.

Most people don’t associate cats and separation anxiety. After all, cats are supposed to be loners, the perfect pets to stay home alone all day or over the weekend when you take a quick trip away — even for weeks at a time while you’re on vacation, with only a daily visit from a pet sitter to leave out food and scoop the litterbox.

That’s a serious misconception about cats. They can actually be quite sociable. In fact, a recent study by researchers at Oregon State University and Monmouth University found that when cats were offered a choice between food, human companionship, scent and toys, half of them chose human social interaction and only 37 percent chose food.

Kittens who were orphaned or weaned at an early age may be prone to separation anxiety. A divorce, death of an owner or some other change in the household may also trigger separation anxiety, especially in the case of a senior cat.

Signs of Distress

Cats with separation anxiety may express their apprehension over an owner’s absence in destructive or annoying ways. They often scratch furniture, pace, cry, fight with other cats, refuse to eat or groom themselves compulsively, licking or chewing at their fur until they have big bald patches. Others sulk or become depressed. Worse, some cats start to pee or poop outside the litterbox or spray urine on their owner’s bed or clothing.

What the heck is that all about? Oddly enough, spreading his scent around that way may help the cat feel more secure. Mixing his own odor with that of his beloved — and missing — owner is a way for him to feel closer to that person. Before you blow your top about it, try to remember that your cat is paying you a compliment an unwelcome one but still a compliment.

Managing Separation Anxiety

The good news is that your cat doesn’t have to be clingy and hairless the rest of his life. The first step is to visit your veterinarian to rule out any underlying health conditions that may be causing the problem. If your veterinarian concludes that your cat may have separation anxiety, here are some steps you can take to help him feel more comfortable and less afraid when you’re away from home.

Enrich his environment. Food puzzles and other interactive toys can engage your cat’s brain and help take his mind off the fact that you’re AWOL. Releasing the food from a puzzle toy challenges his intelligence and helps keep him active.

Keep him interested. Rotate favorite interactive toys to help prevent boredom. Bring out the best ones only when you are leaving the house.

Give him a new focus in life. Screen a nature DVD with lots of birds, squirrels and fish. Their quick movements and high-pitched noises can intrigue your cat. Another way to do this is to set up a window perch with a view of a bird feeder or an aquarium that he can see but not access. (You don’t want to come home to carnage.)

Stay on schedule. Cats don’t like change. As much as possible, feed and play with your cat at the same times every day. That can help to relieve his stress.

Plug in a diffuser that emits feline pheromones. They mimic the natural pheromones produced by a mother cat and seem to have a soothing effect on some cats.

Severe cases of separation anxiety may call for a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist whose trained observations may give new insight into your cat’s behavior. If necessary, she can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to help your cat stay calm in your absence.

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