Separation Anxiety in Cats: When a Smelly Surprise Means Kitty Loves You

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By Dr. Sophia Yin

First appeared in the SF Chronicle in 2002

It's three hours past dawn and the songbirds are strangely silent. The house is still, devoid of life save a lone Tabby sitting bold, solitary, and aloof in the window with a beam of sunshine spotlighting his silver and stripes. He is the keeper of his house, the king of his territory. Then he turns, looks. And then Weeoow! Weeeoooww! His wails grate the air like freshly manicured nails sliding down a squeaky clean chalkboard. 

Why the mournful meowing?

This kitty wants his mommy and she's just left for work.

Tabby drops down from his pedestal and paces five steps to his left. Weeeooow! Five paces to the right. Weeooow! Five paces to the left again. Weeoow! Weeooow! 

Then, he’s off to the bed that he shares with his favorite human. He stays just long enough to lay a smelly surprise and then heads back to pace by his special window spot.

He's spiteful, vengeful, vindictive, some might say. But if so, they'd be wrong. This pouting pussy cat suffers from what Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a board certified veterinary behaviorist, dubs separation anxiety syndrome (SAS). 

According to Schwartz, who described this syndrome for the first time in cats in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2003, separation anxiety syndrome is an emotional response that triggers misbehavior when separated from an attachment figure. Well, technically it's not misbehavior according to the cat. But these cats engage in all types of normal cat behaviors, just at inappropriate times or locations by human standards. 

Unlike the separation anxiety in humans, which is a mild to moderate affective disorder characterized by mild weeping and social withdrawal, the anxiety in SAS pets ranges in intensity from the mild but heart-breaking stress often seen on a child's first day at school to an all-out episode reminiscent of a panic attack in human adults. The most extreme form is more obvious in dogs who, “faster than a speeding bullet”, have been known to hurl themselves out of two story windows and, “with more power than an Amtrak locomotive,” have chewed through doors and walls, often injuring themselves in the process. 

Anxious cats usually don't perform acts that are so swiftly devastating to your property or to themselves. They most frequently express their angst by leaving poo presents or urine spray surprises in random areas in the house (or less random areas such as your bed or your clothes). They may also wail with the energy and endurance of the Energizer Bunny or use their shear-like claws to shred your favorite furniture. 

They can't help themselves. When their special companion is gone, they may think it's forever. This sends their heart racing and their stress hormones off the scale. It can even initiate stomach and intestinal upset, thus the pooping out of place. To alleviate their anxiety, they start to label their  “stuff”, with their claws and pungent urine spray. 

Anxious cats may even possibly damage themselves by grooming excessively. Not the vain reality TV model-type hair-stroking meant to enhance appearance so as to attract the opposite sex. More like pulling hair out in patches that can span entire thigh or belly or back. 

Not all cats that make a sudden commode change or that rough up your favorite furniture have SAS though. Says Schwartz, The main thing is that the misbehavior occurs in the owner's absence. Sometimes it just starts in the owner's absence though. For instance Schwartz states, a cat that begins to urinate on the owner's bed when left alone may have separation anxiety syndrome but could continue to urinate on the bed even when the owner is home because the behavior is maintained by other things, such as environmental cues.

The diagnosis gets even more complicated when you consider other cases of similar signs such as urinary tract infections or intestinal disorders leading to lapses in litter box use and allergies, hormonal disorders, and mite or flea infestations leading to hair loss. Thus, a visit or two to your veterinarian should be first on your list when you see suspicious signs in your cat.

How to Help A Cat Who Mourns Your Absence?

What should you do if you think your cat has SAS? It's all about quality time when the owners are home so that he is tired and satisfied to rest comfortably by the time the owner leaves, explains Schwartz. “That means scheduling in multiple play sessions or teaching some favorite kitty tricks.”

It also means creating an environment that’s fun and enriching when you’re gone. Such as by putting Tabby’s food in a food dispensing toy when you leave, hiding treats in various locations around the house, placing perches in locations where Tabby can view what’s going on outside—even placing a bird feeder outside the window. Some cats, more commonly those who have been well socialized when young, even enjoy having other pet playmates.

Most importantly, if you come home and find an “accident” on your antique bed, don't get angry. It just means your kitty loves you.

 

 

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13 responses to “Separation Anxiety in Cats: When a Smelly Surprise Means Kitty Loves You

  1. My cat just did this for the first time two weeks ago while I was at work and then again about a week later when I was work but after having returned from a long weekend away. She pooped on the bed both times and urinated as well the second time. I washed the bed cover multiple times and sprayed it heavily with Nature’s Miracle and we are now closing the door to the room so that she cannot get on the bed when we are not home and/or at night while we sleep. The bed is where she used to spend most nights, sleeping at my feet, and often during the day for naps. We have another cat who is her sibling and so she has company. Is there anything else I can do that would make it so that we can give her the run of the house again both during the day and at night?

  2. My cat has been both urinating and pooping beside my bed, for the past two weeks when he has both food and water, I don’t know what to do, it’s stressing me out.

  3. This article helps. I never got angry at my boy cat for pooping and peeing on my bed when I’m away for a few days. Now I know why. But when I’m home, he mostly ignores me. But, my question is, when I’m away, my girl cat cries after I’m gone for hours(work) and paces around the house and watches out the back door(according to my parents). She doesn’t sleep till I get home and follows me to my room to sleep next to me in bed. I come home through the back door. How can I ease her anxiety? I want to give her the message that I will and would never abandon her. Please let me know.

  4. I just got a kitten about a week ago and she’s very loving towards me from the moment I got her – not shy at all when I’m around and if I seem trusting towards someone she will be as well but she obviously cries when I leave for work and as soon as she hears my keys she’ll run to the door and cry.
    My issue is while I’m home she uses the litter box and has no problems getting to it or anything like that but while I’m at work or I’m sleeping (sometimes) she’ll do #1’s and #2’s elsewhere.

    1. Hi Simone,

      Congratulations on your new kitten! A great first step would be to get in touch with a local animal behaviorist (your veterinarian may be able to make some recommendations). The animal behaviorist will work with you to help training your new kitty towards more appropriate behaviors. Additionally, CattleDog Publishing has a DVD call Kitty Kindergarten which is a great tool for cat owners who are looking for tools to help train their new kittens. The DVD can be found at our website: https://drsophiayin.com.

  5. Hello! I have a wonderful cat, but lately she started pooping around the house. she doesn’t do this all the time. Usually this happens if we don’t do something for her, like pet her or play with her every time she wants to, or if we don’t stay up playing with her at 4 o’clock in the morning, which is becoming very tiring for us. I know she does it on purpose because she even stared my mom some days ago and then started running and leaving nr.2 around the carpet just because my mom couldn’t pet her at that moment. and last night it was the bed because we were all sleeping and did not wake up for her, so I really need some advice on how to stop her behave this way because I really don’t want to take the drastic measures some people are telling me to, like abandon her. There must be a way to solve this, please help me.

  6. Hello! My cat lately started behaving weird. She knows very well we don’t like her pooping around the house and she did not do this even when she was a little kitten. But a couple of weeks ago my mother did not pet her the exact moment she wanted her to and my cat stared at my mom, then started to run pooping around the carpet. She also did this a couple of times when she was left alone in the house or when we did not give her the food she wanted or did not pet her the moment she wanted. But the worst thing was this time. she developed this habit to make us play with her at 4 o’clock in the morning, or stay on the door without letting us close it, and now is a little too cold to do this. Last night we didn’t wake up to play with her and she left her nr 2 on the bed. So now I decided to ask if someone can help me make her leave this bad habit because otherwise my parents will not want her in the house anymore. Please tell me what can I do.

  7. I have two kittens, three months old, sisters from the same litter. Twice I have come home to a puddle of pee ony bed where we all sleep together. I play with them, have toys, feed them well and always fresh water and clean bowls. One kitten, Swiftie, is her own little person and doesn’t require much. When she wants affection she’ll ask for it. Schumer on the other hand seems co-depend and cries for no apparent reason. She is loving, cuddles with me most of the night and sometimes sleeps underneath the blanket. Two total opposites. Schumer is however, the alpha-cat. She is like a man that cries and Swiftie, she’s the smaller more independent girl. Point is, I’m an attentive, playfull Mommy that talks to them and takes good care of them…but I’m not going to tolerate this pissing on my friggin bed. What’s up with these kittens??? HELP!

  8. SOS!!!! I have had my cat for 2 years now, and she pee’s not only on my bed, but my brothers beds or roommates way to frequently. I am away at school most of the year, but when I come home for long breaks or even weekends I take her with me. I have to work or have other obligations so she stays at home. I have a dog and 5 other cats (due to other circumstances I cannot control) so she has plenty of company and usually at least 1 person is home. I keep my bedroom doors closed as often as possible, clean litter all 3 litter boxes everyday, and changed her food. I’ve tried positive reinforcement with treats after she uses her litter box or does something else I like.She isn’t very social and doesn’t want affection a lot of the time, so I do what I can in terms of cuddle time. I am moving back home in a few weeks permanently for at least a year and my mother doesn’t want her to come home with me. I don’t know what to do.

  9. Hi, thanks you for shining a different light on cat spraying. It has really helped me with my 2.5 year old Persian. Because I always got mad at him for spraying, I was unable to figure out how to change it.

    I was about to give up on having a cat.

    Thanks a lot and love your site!

  10. I really need to do some research on reducing cat anxiety. Though my cat has never had these issues before, I know there’s still plenty I can do to reduce the amount of anxiety he has when we leave the house.

    Luckily for us we work from home and don’t need to leave so often, but it’s still better to do what I can to reduce anxiety on a whole anyway. He’s a pretty anxious cat in general and I would never want him to get to the point where he was anxious about us leaving.

  11. I have a 6 week old kitten, molly. She is completely toilet trained and doesn’t Pee or poo anywhere except her litter tray. At night we put her in the bathroom to sleep because she tends to wake our young daughter up through the night, and first thing in the morning around 5am I let her out of the bathroom. So since we have go her, when I let her out of the bathroom she has always come and got into bed with me and played for a bit and snuggled, however the last 2 mornings she has got up on my bed, pounced around for a couple of seconds and then peed on my bed and then she takes off. I have washed the dooner and sheets with stuff to make sure there is no scent left but I’m just unsure why she has started doing this all of a sudden. HELP!!!

  12. I have an elderly Maine Coon I’ve recently saved. We’ve bonded very well and he does something very peculiar.

    Before I leave for work every morning, I throw several small cat treats on my bed to distract him when I leave. The crazy thing is he always leaves me one. It doesn’t matter how many I leave him, there’s always one left when I get home. Is this an instinctive thing of feeding me? He’s an indoor cat so bringing me presents ain’t happening.

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