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Helping Your Pet Overcome Separation Anxiety — Part 2: Cats


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s daily routines, and that includes pets. Many dogs and cats adjusted to their owners being home with them 24/7 for months, but now that people are returning to work or taking vacations this summer, pets are suddenly experiencing time apart from their owners.

As a result, dogs and cats are having separation anxiety more frequently than before, and exhibiting stress-induced behaviors stemming from their mental health. In the second installment of our two-part report, check out advice from a local animal behaviorist and see how you can help your pets if they are struggling with separation anxiety.

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Robin AF Olson, president/founder of Kitten Associates in Sandy Hook, is a cat behavior counselor with years of experience caring for cats of all ages, needs, and abilities.

She finds that cats do best in a predictable environment, and can feel stressed when there are changes made.

“When there’s a loss, like a family member dies, kids go off to college, there is a divorce, and change of home, cats don’t take it well. They love being on a schedule, and are most at ease when they are with consistent family members, furry or not,” Olson explained.

The pandemic was a big change for many cats to have their owners home more often, and now they are going through further changes with people leaving the house and starting to vacation again.

To understand if a cat is truly experiencing anxiety separation, it is important to first assess if the cat is ill from other causes.

“Cat parents need to be very aware of what is the baseline normal behavior for the cat before they go on a trip or go back to work, now that folks are starting to return to their office and be away from home more,” Olson stressed . “That way, they will understand that whatever ails their cat after they go back to work may be related to separation anxiety.”

Signs of separation anxiety include litter box problems, such as urinating/defecating outside of the litter pan or even soiling bedding or clothing; being overly clingy when the owner is home, and vocalizing (meowing) more.

Since these can also be indicators of an underlying illness, pet owners should consult with a veterinarian to rule out other reasons of these behaviors.

If it has been determined that separation anxiety is the reason for these actions, Olson recommends enriching the home environment to best manage a cat’s stress levels and keep them occupied.

Some ways to do this is by adding vertical spaces for them to climb and explore, which can be accomplished by adding shelves and hutches that can be purchased or made yourself.

“Cats love to get up high, where they can feel in control of their space,” Olson said.

Placing a cat tree near the window for them to look out from is also helpful, and allows them to be mentally stimulated as they survey the scenery.

Additionally, Olson says, “You can grow cat grass, leave out food puzzle toys, and there are even web cams that allow you to talk to your pet while monitoring them while you’re away from home.”

Enrichment Strategies

Incorporating these different enrichment strategies can help a cat’s emotional state and keep them healthy.

When it comes time to physically leave the house, Olson says to try to be consistent with how and when you leave and return.

“I would not make a big deal out of leaving, but I definitely would greet my cat (if they are social and would like that), maybe spend some time brushing them or definitely do 15 minutes of playtime with a wand toy,” she said. “I would be mindful about big swings in the schedule, and I’d make certain I was paying attention to my pets and monitoring them for health/stress issues.”

While medications for anxiety are available for cats through veterinarians, Olson stresses the importance of looking to the root of the problem.

“That said, if the stress is from inter-cat or cat/dog issues, then you need a cat behaviorist to be involved and then possibly some medication — but they don’t always work, and they can take six weeks or more to even kick in,” she noted.

For short term use, Olson said people can try incorporating homeopathy flower essences to help alleviate the cat’s stress.

Ultimately, it is important to try to look at the world from the cat’s perspective to try to understand what they are going through.

Olson explained, “Cats are not little humans in cat suits. They don’t try to get revenge by inappropriately eliminating; they’re being a cat. They’re showing their owner that something is wrong. It’s up to us to understand that and take action on their behalf.”

She continued, “There are lots of terrific books on cat behavior by Pam Johnson Bennett and Jackson Galaxy. When you understand and respect your cat’s ‘catness’ not only will they have a better life, but you will enjoy your life more with them.”

If your pet needs a veterinary appointment, plan in advance; Olson says that since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an unprecedented increase in vet visits.

“It’s not just one practice — all the vets are scheduling weeks out, and specialists are typically over a month wait time. In 20 years of doing rescue, I’ve never seen this before,” Olson said. “This tells me that people are paying a lot more attention to their pets, since they’ve been home so much more. The good news for cats is, they’ll be getting better care now that they’re getting better attention.”

For more information about Kitten Associates and to receive advice from Olson, visit kittenassociates.org and e-mail info@kittenassociates.org.

Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at alissa@thebee.com.

Cats like Pistachio, a foster cat in the Kitten Associates rescue program, enjoy climbing on cat trees to help alleviate stress, which can benefit cats dealing with separation anxiety. —Dana Sharkey photo

Installing shelving or wall mounts can enrich the home environment for cats that have separation anxiety, as seen here by cat Pistachio in his MyZoo Spaceship Gamma Wall Mounted Cat Wall Shelf. —Robin AF Olson photo





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