Cats get separation anxiety, too. Here's how to help.

September 1, 2023 - 8 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
A wide eyed tabby cat in a crouching position

You don’t hear too much about separation anxiety in cats, do you? It’s not too surprising—cats are famously unflappable. And even the anxious ones aren’t usually prone to the same loud, shoe-shredding theatrics as their frenzied canine counterparts.

Yet cats can indeed feel distress when left alone, especially for long periods of time. One study found that about 13% of cats suffer separation-related problems, which certainly isn’t nothing!

Read on to learn the causes and symptoms of cat separation anxiety and how to ease your frantic feline’s fears.

Symptoms of separation anxiety in cats

Why is feline separation anxiety so much less common than separation anxiety in dogs?

For one thing, cats tend to be far more independent by nature. While dogs will agonize in the absence of constant human companionship, most cats will frequently seek out hideaways even when you’re home. 

But believe it or not, dogs have one pretty big advantage when it comes to separation anxiety: When they have it, their humans know about it. (If the frenetic barking and clawed-up doorframe don’t clue you in, the tattered wardrobe probably will.) 

But in cats, separation anxiety may be harder to recognize.

First, the obvious symptoms:

Excessive vocalization

tabby cat meowing

Does your cat’s meowing always kick into hyperdrive when you’re about to leave home? Do you always hear your kitty’s cries as you arrive home?

If your cat speaks with volume, urgency, or anguish whenever they feel abandoned, that’s a pretty powerful sign of separation anxiety.

Destructive behavior

curious maine coon cat lying on side scratching sofa looking at camera in sunlight

Some kitties scratch their stress away. Separation anxiety can transform even the coolest of cats into whirlwinds of destruction.

If you notice scratch marks on your furniture, chewed-up items, or claw marks on doors and windows, your cat might be trying to find an outlet for their anxiety. On the other hand, if they also like to thrash your home to bits while you’re there, you may be dealing with a different problem, like boredom.

Inappropriate potty habits

Cat urinating at home. Cat sitting near wet spot on the couch. Cat peeing on sofa. Bad cat behaviour.

Cats tend to be pretty adept at sticking to their litter box, especially if it’s clean and they’ve been trained to use it. But unfortunately, an anxious cat may start peeing and pooping around your home. It’s a very icky way of marking their territory and feeling more secure in their own space. But be aware: There may also be other reasons why your cat isn’t using their litter box.

Vomiting

Closeup side profile of calico cat face looking at mess on carpet inside indoor house, home with hairball vomit stain and woman owner cleaning

Extreme anxiety can cause your cat to vomit. But then again, so can a lot of other things. There are also some subtler symptoms of separation anxiety in cats:

Pacing and restlessness

cat pacing across wood floor

Cats are often calm creatures. So if you see your kitty pacing back and forth like a caged tiger whenever you leave or return home, this could be a sign of separation anxiety.

Excessive grooming

Tabby cat lying on white blanket, cleaning herself with her tongue, eyes closed

Excessive grooming is a common self-soothing behavior in cats. It’s often a sign of anxiety and restlessness.

Loss of appetite

Domestic gray longhair Maine Coon cat with big belly, out of focus, lies near bowl of food, refuses yummy from gluttony or illness

There are all sorts of reasons why cats can be finicky eaters. But if your cat is usually the type to gobble up their food, and then they tend to lose interest in eating when they’re alone, anxiety might be the culprit.

Overattachment

clingy gray cat following owner around on wood floor

If your cat suddenly starts following you around like you’re carrying a pungent bowl of tuna, they may be worried about being left alone again. Either that, or you’re carrying tuna.

Habitual hiding

anxious orange striped cat hiding under gray and natural wood couch

Many meowers are evasive by nature, so it may be fine if your kitty is constantly doing their best Casper impression. But if your cat’s propensity for hiding suddenly skyrockets, that may be a sign of anxiety.

This one may seem counterintuitive—if they missed you, why would they avoid you when you’re home?

Well, the feelings triggered by separation anxiety don’t always dissipate the second you walk through the door. Unfortunately, consistent feelings of stress can lead to general anxiety. And general anxiety can lead to hiding.

The more of these symptoms you observe, the more likely it is that separation anxiety is at play.

Causes of separation anxiety in cats

So why do some cats develop separation anxiety while others snooze the day away like they didn’t notice you leave?

Some kitties are just more sensitive than others. But under certain circumstances, even the most stalwart of scratchers can feel that anxiety creep in.

Changes in routine

Cats might not be wedded to routines in quite the way that dogs are. But this doesn’t mean cats don’t need consistency. When a cat’s basic routines or surroundings undergo change, they can start to feel less secure and more vulnerable in their own home. As a result, things that didn’t used to bother them—like you leaving them alone—can suddenly start to induce anxiety. 

Even something like changing their feeding time or moving a sofa they’re used to jumping on can produce anxiety (although these feelings may be temporary, depending on the situation). Whenever possible, keep your cat’s routines consistent.

Previous abandonment or trauma

Cats have pretty sharp memories; they can remember the good stuff and the bad. If your cat experienced abandonment or abuse before you brought them home from a shelter, those memories may have stuck around. And when they're left alone again, those old traumas and feelings of neglect may resurface.

Losing a companion

You might think of cats as solitary creatures, but they can get extremely attached to their pals, whether they’re humans, other cats, or even dogs. If a member of your household is no longer around, they might become even more attached to you and have a harder time watching you walk out the door. 

calm kitten british cat sitting on the sofa

Lack of socialization

Sometimes, young kittens never learn how to socialize with a wide variety of people and pets. This can result in an unusually intense attachment to their primary caregiver. A poorly socialized kitty may be content to steer clear of most living things, but if YOU go anywhere, heaven help you.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Some cats are just anxious. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to these things! If your kitty can’t tolerate your absence, and you have no idea why, maybe you just need to be less amazing...

…Or maybe you can deal with the root of your feline friend’s anxiety.

How to help a cat with separation anxiety

Here’s the good news: There are plenty of ways to help your cat feel more at ease when you're not at home. You may even be able to prevent separation anxiety before it starts.

Create a cozy space

Your cat needs its own special place.

Creating a comfy nook with a soft bed or blanket can give your cat a safe space to chill out while you’re gone. And mixing in some stuff that smells like you—like an old t-shirt—can make them feel like you're still around. (Cats have surprisingly powerful noses!) 

And, of course, make sure they have access to basic necessities like clean litter, water, scratching surfaces, and vertical spaces for exploring and exercise, like a cat tree or shelves.

De-dramatize goodbyes and hellos

Saying goodbye to your cat shouldn’t be a big, vocal production. Instead of loudly announcing a grand goodbye, slip out the door quietly, preferably while your cat’s not looking. Dramatic departures can draw your cat’s attention to the fact that you’re leaving and trigger their anxiety.

The same thing goes for dramatic hellos, which can just call attention to the fact that you were gone. Calm and inconspicuous is the way to go.

Treats and toys, oh my

Use treats and toys to create a good vibe around your home while you’re gone. There are also plenty of treat-dispensing gadgets on the market to help space out your cat’s treat intake.

Oh, and don't forget the toys. Lots of toys. Leave your cat with easy access to engaging playthings like puzzles, which can keep them busy and distract them from their anxiety.

Cat in a box

Playtime, playtime, playtime

Solving separation anxiety isn’t just about what you do when you’re out of the house.

Spending quality playtime with your cat while you’re home can help them feel more relaxed and mentally stimulated in general, which may help ease their anxiety when you head out the door. (It’s also just a great way to bond with your cat.) Toys like feather wands and laser pointers can be major stress busters.

Seek your vet’s wisdom

If your pet undergoes sudden behavioral changes, there’s ALWAYS a possibility that an undiagnosed illness or injury is to blame. Health conditions can manifest in all sorts of surprising ways, including anxiety-like symptoms.

So take your cat to the vet. They might discover a feline health issue that’s been wreaking havoc on your cat’s emotions. It’s even possible that the right medical treatment will solve the issue completely.

But even if it’s not all that simple, your vet may still be able to help. For instance, there are plenty of anxiety medications that are available for cats, but your vet will need to write a prescription.

Training like a pro

You may need to train your cat to get better at being alone. Practice those short, calm departures, then come back home after a few minutes. If your kitty is calm when you return, you can give them a treat, copious praise, and some snuggles (if they’re into that).

Over time, build up the duration of these mini-excursions until your cat starts becoming more comfortable alone. Hopefully, they'll get the hang of it and, eventually, feel less anxious.

Man petting a fluffy cat on a pink couch

Punishment is never the answer

Here's the scoop: Punishing your cat for being anxious is utterly counterproductive. If you yell or mete out other consequences, two things are certain:

  1. Your cat won’t know why you’re punishing them.

  2. Their anxiety will get even worse.

Your goal here is to make them feel safe, loved, and secure, even when you're not around. Patience, care, and affection are what’s required.

If all else fails, you can hire a professional behaviorist to help. Yes, cat behaviorists are a thing, and they do some incredible work. Seek out one who’s been certified by an organization like the Animal Behavior Institute (ABI), the Animal Behavior College (ABC), or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).

How cat insurance can help 

Cat insurance doesn’t cover behavioral treatments, but it can help ease the financial burden of treating accidents or injuries.

And here’s the thing: If your cat is experiencing anxiety or any other behavioral issues, the problem might actually be medical. Cats are wonderful, but they’re not always great at telling us when they’re sick or hurt.

Just make sure your pet is insured when they’re still young, so their conditions won’t become pre-existing.


David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.