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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, appetite loss, throwing up, destructive clawing and excessive self-grooming.

Signs of Stress

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.

10 Ways to Help Keep Your Cat Calm

Here are some simple strategies that can help your feline relax when you have to be away.

Talk to your vet. Start by involving your veterinarian, especially if your cat shows worrisome signs like urinating outside of the box, excessive grooming, missing patches of hair, vomiting, excessive vocalization and appetite loss. 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 more 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.

Keep departures and arrivals low-key. When you get ready to leave, don’t say a complicated goodbye to your cat; instead, make only a slight, non-emotional acknowledgement of your departure. When you return, greet your cat only after he stops all attention seeking (like meowing and pawing) and give him attention only as long as he remains calm — for instance, while he is lying down or sitting on a perching area.

Leave him a challenge. When you go, give your cat a challenging food puzzle. This helps him associate your departure with something he enjoys. Use a variety of food puzzles, from those filled with loose kibble or treats to those with soft filling, like canned cat food. In addition, hide small pieces of food around your house, such as on perches and cat trees, to create a scavenger hunt for your cat. If you will be gone for an extended period, ask your cat’s caretaker to rotate puzzles and hide treats at least once or twice a day.

Provide a wide variety of toys. Keep him busy with mice or ball-on-track toys, or interactive, robotic cat toys. Catnip-filled toys may have the added bonus of helping your cat to relax.

Incorporate perching areas. Cats enjoy exploring vertical spaces as well as having a high vantage point from which to view the outside world. Window perches, cat trees and cat-friendly shelving are ideal ways to vary your cat’s environment. Some cats also enjoy hiding; for these cats, boxes and tunnels can be soothing areas to relax.

Create a calm atmosphere. Feliway room diffusers release a pheromone that has a profound relaxation effect on many felines; use them in rooms where your cat is most likely to spend his time. Playing music while you’re away can also soothe your cat. Through a Cat’s Ear was composed specifically to promote feline relaxation. Finally, a shirt scented with your smell can be placed in your cat’s resting areas to help provide comfort.

Provide entertainment. If you’re willing to have the television on, cat-friendly programming from Animal Planet or videos designed for cats can help keep your feline entertained.

Find a committed cat sitter. If possible, your sitter should engage in twice-daily play and petting sessions with your cat. However, you may want to consider having someone stay overnight with your cat to provide more regular interaction and help keep his stress level low while you’re away.

You may also want to read the Vetstreet article “5 Secrets of Supremely Happy Indoor Cats.”