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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32 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.

    1. I’m having the same problem if I don’t do just as my cat likes regarding her food water litter box and attention she will poop right beside my face while I’m asleep she also does this to my son it’s ridiculous it’s obvious that it’s spiteful and I cannot tolerate it because it’s disgusting I don’t want to have to give her up because I know she’ll be hard to adopt out with this personality trait of hers but I just cannot accept her pooping on the bed of me and my child I will not accept it

  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!

    1. Take her to the vet she may be in pain. Be super gentle with her and don’t yell or scould or harm her when she does this. I had the same problem with one of my kittens. She was mistreated before I rescued her. With kindness and understanding the peering stopped within s few weeks.

  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.

    1. I hope you took her home with you, the situation she living in with four other cats and a dog she may not like, it’s too much for her she will love it once you’re settled.

  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.

    1. How about adopting a gentle older female cat from a rescue place that knows the cat. Two really is better than one in the cat world

  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!!!

    1. There may be a stray cat hanging around or she is feeling abandoned by the family. She wants to watch over her family at night but is locked away .. all kittens and cats play through the night st first. She will soon be sleeping through the night like her family does and realise you’re not going to play with her at night

  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.

    1. Maine Coons are very loyal and loving. It sounds like he’s sharing them with you. It’s funny as he doesn’t know that you know there were 5 treats on the bed lol .. he’s not about to give you half the loot, just one.

  13. i have a 14 year old very stressed/ nervous cat, she has been like this since a kitten. ,.
    lately she had been peeing and pooping in different spots in the house. we changed her litter, keep the door to her cat room open and she still has accidents. we even put her in the litter box as a reminder where to go and still has accidents. she can hold her pee and poop for 24 hours. she even pooped right outside the door to her cat box,. since she is extremely nervous, taking her to the vet would be devistating to her.
    vet thinks she is going senile.
    any advice

  14. I have two neutered male cats that I have had since they were three days old and now they are 5yrs. When we go away on vacation, we have a friend come over and look after them. One cats loves strangers and the other will attack them. The one who doesn’t like strangers is on prozac 5mg once a day because when we go away he pees everywhere… kitchen counters, dog beds, dining room table and so on. I have always assumed it’s the one on prozac that is doing it, since he has FLUTD but I have never caught either of them in the act. When we come home from a trip and the house is full of urine i take him to the vet to rule out medical issues and his urine test is always fine, so it’s behavioral. When we go away on vacation, we have a friend come over and look after them. One is on prozac 5mg once a day because One cats loves strangers and the other will attack them. Help.. I have no idea how to fix this issue.

  15. My cat has been acting crazy in the morning running all over the house while I am trying to get ready for work , but today while I was putting on my makeup in bathroom she walked in and peed right in front of me , so I clean it up and go to work, well when I got home she went to MY side of the bed and pooped !

    She has never behaved like this before , not sure whats going on. I have had her for over 2 years now and she never behaved like this.

    Is she doing it on purpose ?

    1. My cat recently started doing this and we figured out that her food was causing constipation which made pooping painful for her. She began to associate the pain with the litter box and stopped going in there all together because she was afraid. The vet started her on Miralax, 1/4 tsp once a day and we changed her food to a grain free dry and added more water to her wet food. After a week, she again went back to peeing in the box, which was a relief. It’s taken longer to get her to poop in the box again, but little by little she is improving.

  16. Please Help! My kitty just turned 1 year old and is a F3 Savannah cat. She is pulling out the hair on her hind quarters everytime I leave her alone. It started about 5 months ago that I would find these clumps of hair on her perch and it gradually has gotten worse. Her bald bum is barely noticeable but you can feel the lack of hair in that spot. She will also wail if i go outside in the yard as she is an indoor cat. Since she is a Savannah she does have wild cat tendencies and I’m sure I’m not making her burn enough energy. What else can I do? I don’t want to have to put her on medication for separation anxiety. Please help with some advice.

  17. I need advice- my 12 year old male cat has been peeing and pooping outside his litterbox. This happens when we go on vacation. I have people come by and feed and clean the litter boxes. He isn’t alone he has his 12 year old sister with him.
    Is this due to separation? Should I board them, when we travel?
    Is their a special cleaning regimes I should use?

  18. I need some real help. I am at my wit’s end. I love my cat but she is now peeing and pooping all over my house. She has never liked the litter box much, but she would pee in the litter box or the sink and poop near the box on the linoleam floor in my laundry room. Now, she had been going every where in the house, peeing and pooping on my wood floors, maybe because my father is gone now ? ? Shes three.2 yrs alone now in the daytime, But she still does it when I come home and I’m not looking. I am so stressed out. Any help?

  19. After reading your article I think my cat(s) may have separation anxiety. I have 4 cats. Up until the last two weeks they have never peed anywhere other than a litter box. Two are 11, one is 9 and the other is 7 years old.

    We recently went away on vacation the first week of August and when we got back last weekend I was horrified to discover my bed covered in pee and poop. It was disgusting and a lot of it.

    The cats were not left alone as my 17 year old kid stayed home with them.

    One of the oldest cats is attached to me. She spends all her time near me and my bedroom is her sanctuary so at first I thought perhaps she was the one that was soiling the bed. She is the only female of the four.

    We cleaned up everything. Washed the bedding with odor mute and shampooed the bed with nature’s miracle. Everything was okay for a bit. I slept on the couch the first couple of nights as the bed needed to dry.

    I woke up in the morning to discover a fresh pee spot on the bed.

    So I shampooer it again with natures miracle and set up an indoor camera to see if we could find the culprit.

    The next day there was another fresh spot and it was discovered it was the youngest male cat that had been caught on the bed. The camera didn’t record the act but it recorded the cat on the bed.

    I finally shut my door after this and everything was fine. Spent my first night in my bed last night. Made the bed this morning and everything was fine. The door was left open to the room as I figured it would be ok. Came home to discover a fresh pee spot. Figuring it must have been done when the cats were left alone for a bit in the afternoon.

    I live in Fort McMurray and last year during the wildfire that caused the entire city to be evacuated, the two oldest cats were rescued by my friend along with my dogs the day of the evacuation. However the two youngest cats went into hiding and were not able to be rescued. They spent 28 days alone in the house. During that time they did not see all over. They went in the laundry room over the drain beside their litter box. There we’re many groups of people in my house during the evacuation to look for them but they weren’t coming out of hiding.

    When I was able to return home, I discovered they had not left through the open window but had remained in the house. I called and called them as I thought they we’re outside and was hoping they would hear me and come home. I looked in the house and couldn’t find them. Finally after an hour I heard a slight meow and one of them came slinking up the stairs. Shortly after the youngest one came up. I couldn’t believe they were in the house. 28 days alone had their toll. They were terrified. They never left my side and even slept together. They had never slept together before and even now they are back to having their tiffs with each other.

    Everything seemed to go back to normal. The cats never peed anywhere other than their litter boxes. The youngest is the type of cat that cuddles if he wants but he is very I dependent. He is a giant typical Tom cat. All my cats are fixed. But he still got giant.

    After reading your article about separation anxiety, I am wondering if my leaving the house for 10 days may have triggered something to remind him of last year and being alone for 28 days.

    If so, how do I fix this? Do I need to keep my door shut whenever I’m not home or do I let them have free reign as they had before? Do I need to change my mattress? I’m worried if I get a new one that they may wreck it again by peeing on it.

    I just don’t know how to fix this. I am hoping it doesn’t become habit. Do you think it will end once he realizes I’m not leaving and staying home? Do you think he may always be like this now when he’s left alone in the house? Do I need to kennel him if everyone is leaving for awhile in case he decides to go on furniture because the bedroom doors are closed?

    Any advice would be helpful.

  20. I recently got a kitten that almost a year old. I am in college but when i go home i stay with my mom. So, Ive had my kitten now for about 3 weeks. But at the end of the first week i had to travel for about 5 days. As I was gone she happen to pee and poo all over my bed and my mother’s bed. Then when I came home she peed on my bed again. I have been looking up ways to train them like feeding her on my bed or putting down plastic but no luck. About a week after coming back i had to leave to go to college and I took my cat with me. Since living in my apartment she has only peed once and pooped once on my bed. The thing is she used her litter box to poop and pee in regularly, so I don’t understand why she will randomly do this. Now I have a crate that I put her in when I have to leave because I don’t trust her to just chill in my room and not poop or pee on my bed. How to I stop this behavior, so she can freely stay in my room?

  21. My 6 month old kitten pooped on my bed twice yesterday. Both times he was on timeout because he attacked me. Not sure if it was because he was mad at me or because he was separated from me… help.

  22. HELP! I am VERY close to giving my cat away. I found her in the backyard at 6 weeks old. I bottle fed her. I socialized her with my dog and they love each other. When she was a baby, she was sick and I spent thousands of dollars to help her get better and she did.

    BUT NOW, she pees on my bed every time I leave the room. I leave the room for 2 minutes to go to the bathroom and BAM, she has peed on my bed.

    I cover the bed with plastic when I go to work and there is pee on it when i come home. She has been peeing on my bed for months.

    Her litter box is cleaned daily. She is fed excellent food and treats and there has not been any changes in the home to stress her out. She clearly has separation anxiety. I took her to the vet for this problem and they gave her a clean bill of health and recommended psychiatric medication…….OMG

    What should I do? I love her, but I have washed my bedding a hundred times and my mattress is soaked in urine. Her name is Francie and she is 1 year old.

  23. If anyone could help it would be really appreciated. My cat, Ryo-Ohki, is largely a decent cat. However lately she has been “missing the litter box”. it’s been a couple of months now. She usually does this when she knows I’m about to leave for work, or go outside of the house. I recently had to stop letting her sleep with me for allergy reasons, probably near the time this all started being constant and not a sometimes thing. I got her from a shelter, and they mentioned Ilshe had been returned in the past. I’m attached to her but I don’t want to have to clean up her poo every time I might have to go tout work or out or something. Can anybody be given be me some suggestions?
    Right now my only thoughts are to get an additional litter box with a different type of litter (based on what I’ve read elsewhere) or maybe get her a companion so she won’t be lonely when I’m gone. But I have a roommate and she still does this anyways, even when she’s here, sometimes after I come home just because I don’t immediately spend time with her and I go to the bathroom or eat. I don’t know what to do and any suggestions would be helpful.

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