How to Cope with a Stressed-Out Cat

July 9, 2013

Because we often think of cats as independent creatures that will adjust to most anything as long as their needs are met, feline separation anxiety may go unnoticed.  The truth is that most cats are social animals and form strong bonds with their “persons” or perhaps another animal.  But with some cats, that bond becomes excessive and when the person leaves, the cat just cannot deal with it and problems ensue.

Feline separation anxiety is difficult to diagnose, because symptoms often mimic other conditions.  You will need to enlist the help of your veterinarian to obtain a concrete diagnosis.  Common symptoms include excessive grooming, loss of appetite, unexplained vomiting or diarrhea, destructive behavior and litter box issues.

My daughter-in-law once owned a Maine Coon cat with separation anxiety.  Indie was devoted to Jennifer and followed her around like a dog.  Jennifer and Dan traveled frequently and with each departure, Indie became ill.  He refused to eat and showed signs of depression.  After a few years of this increasingly neurotic behavior, Jennifer gave Indie to her parents who were home most of the time.  After numerous unexplained illnesses and periods of depression, Indie finally bonded with the couple and spent several contented years with them.

When my Siamese-mix kitten Lucy was about a year old, I left her for a week with our son in Ft. Myers.  She cried at his window when I walked out.  When we returned from our vacation Lucy, who had been extremely attached to me, would have nothing to do with me and immediately bonded with my husband.  She has remained his cat since.

Cats are complicated animals and their humans must take time to delve into their little psyches and figure out what’s bothering them.  Certain types of cats are more prone to separation anxiety than others.  Oriental breeds, like Siamese or Burmese, possess more human-like temperaments and bond more closely with their humans.  Cats that received inadequate socialization as small kittens, such as orphaned, feral or even shelter kittens, may form tight, dysfunctional bonds with their owners later.

Our Chico, a Snowshoe Siamese-mix, was part of a feral litter that was rescued and hand-raised from just a few days old.  His foster mom owned a German Shepherd-mix male that was extremely curious about the kittens and spent a good deal of his day with them, mothering them.  As a result, Chico seems to have patterned himself after the dog.

Five years later, he watches our Weimaraner and follows him around the house.  At night, Chico sits on the coffee table and watches Gator’s every move.  If the dog leaves the room, Chico is right behind him, and he doesn’t like to be separated from his canine friend.  Chico would sleep with Gator, but the big dog pushes him out of his bed.  So Chico will get as close as he can and sleep near his friend.

Learn to watch for changes in your cat’s behavior and personality when you return from a period of time away from her.  If a new baby is added to the house, either human or animal, that could trigger a change in your kitty’s behavior.

If your cat becomes stressed over circumstances that you can’t change, try to de-stress her.  If she becomes clingy when you are preparing for a trip, change your routine.  Don’t allow her to predict your imminent departure.

Don’t reinforce her needy behavior.  Ignore her or walk away from her when she tries to cling to you.  Provide kitty with lots of interesting toys to amuse her when you are gone.  Creative toys that require her to search for food treats are good.  Only bring them out when you are about to leave.  Eventually, she will associate your leaving with the gift of the new toy.

As a last resort, talk to your veterinarian about medication for your stressed-out feline.  Anti-anxiety drugs worked for our Abby in just a week, and she stopped peeing outside her littler box when she was upset with one of the new kittens.

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