Do Cats Get Anxious When You Leave Them?

New research adds to our understanding of what cats experience when we leave.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Do cats get lonely or anxious when their humans are gone? You bet.

A study published last week, “Identification of separation-related problems in domestic cats,” in the journal PLOS ONE takes another bite out of the myth that cats aren’t bothered by being left alone for extended periods of time. According to the study, more than 1 in 10 cats display behaviors that may indicate separation-related anxiety.

This is very similar to the incidence of separation-related problems reported for dogs. Some of the separation-related behavior problems seen in cats are also seen in dogs, such as destructive behavior, excessive vocalization, and peeing in inappropriate places.

Separation anxiety in dogs has been well-studied and is one of the most common behavioral problems driving people to seek help from a behaviorist, trainer, or veterinarian. Whether cats experience anxiety related to being separated from their human companions has received far less attention. Indeed, there has been very little research into the behavior and welfare of domiciled cats and their interactions with their human caregivers in the home environment, period. Luckily, this is starting to change and researchers are turning attention to the behavior and welfare of homed cats.

In the recent study published in PLOS ONE, Daiana de Souza Machado and her colleagues sought to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of separation related problems in pet cats. They were building on two earlier studies suggesting that cats suffer from separation anxiety (Schwartz, referenced below), as well as the growing database on human-cat interactions.

The researchers surveyed a group of pet owners in Brazil about cat behavioral problems observed by owners, as well as data on cat management practices (indoor/outdoor, types of enrichment offered, etc.) and owner demographics. Among their sampled cats, 13% met at least one of the behavioral criteria for separation related problems. These criteria included destructive behavior, excessive vocalization, urination in inappropriate places, depression/apathy, aggressiveness, agitation/anxiety, and defecation in inappropriate places.

The idea that cats might feel distressed when separated from their human companion builds on a broader rethinking of the human-cat relationship. Research published over the past decade has found that cats can and often do become strongly bonded to their humans. Cats show so-called “attachment behaviors” such as proximity seeking, affiliative and affection behaviors toward their humans, and reunion behaviors. Cats also show a higher frequency of exploratory and playful behaviors in the presence of their owner, a sign that they feel safe and comfortable.

It follows that cats who are strongly bonded may also feel distress when the object of their affection is absent, and several studies have backed this up using some of the same models that have been employed to understand separation-related problems in dogs. Cats, for example, display behavioral and physiological reactions to their owner’s absence, including increased affiliative behaviors when their human returns.  

The researchers identified various factors that seem to influence separation related problems in cats. These include characteristics of the cat and of the cat owner, the cat’s home environment, and “management” (how cats are cared for). Some of the most interesting findings are those related to the home environment and management practices. Cats were more likely to show separation related problems if they did not have access to toys, did not have access to the whole house, had no other animals in the house, had no outdoor access, or were left alone in the house 5 to 7 times a week and more than 6 hours a day.

In other words, cats who were receiving more attention and enrichment were less likely to suffer from separation related problems. My take on this is that cats with interesting lives have better overall mental well-being, which allows them to handle more successfully the temporary stress of being left alone.

This research has important limitations, which the authors acknowledge up front. The survey assumed that cat owners were carefully observing the behavior of their cats and reporting on it accurately. Still, such surveys are one of the few methods available to researchers trying to understand the behavior of companion animals in the home environment. This study was also based on observations made by cat owners when they were home with their cats, and so the observed separation-related behaviors were either reports of things that happened while the owner was away (destructive behavior) or things that happened when they got home (excessive vocalizations). Even more interesting would be to find out what cats are doing and feeling while their owners are gone, but these data would be really challenging to collect.

Separation anxiety is often identified as a problem suffered by the human owner of a cat or dog. An owner may be fed up with “inappropriate” behaviors, and thus seek help fixing the problem. But separation anxiety is, primarily, a problem for the animals. They are the ones feeling distressed.

This study and others like it can greatly benefit cats and their people. We can continue to chip away at the myth that cats are solitary animals who are just fine spending a lot of time alone. Understanding the root causes of behavioral problems in cats can help us be more attentive to what our cats need from us and what may be lacking in their lives. A happy cat makes for a happy human guardian.

Facebook image: aesthetica/Shutterstock


de Souza Machado D, Oliveira PMB, Machado JC, Ceballos MC, Sant’Anna AC (2020) Identification of separation-related problems in domestic cats: A questionnaire survey. PLoS ONE 15(4): e0230999. pone.0230999

Schwartz S. Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003; 222(11):1526–32. PMID: 12784957

Schwartz S. Separation anxiety syndrome in cats: 136 cases (1991–2000). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002; 220(7):1028–33. PMID: 12420782

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