Wasn't Me! My Cat Wet the Bed: Soothing Feline Separation Anxiety

Feline Separation Anxiety

Some people have it good. Like me. I'm incredibly blessed to work at home, with my cat Seren and dog Magic by my side. Since they're rarely alone, though, I worry about their reaction when I go on the road. Although I know they miss me, we're fortunate neither suffers from separation anxiety. Yes, cats also can develop the condition, but classic kitty separation anxiety signs are a bit different than those shown by dogs.

Think of separation anxiety as a kind of grief behavior. After all, when you walk out the door, your cat has no way of knowing how soon you'll return. When you're the main source of affection (and food!) the situation can be pretty stressful.

Cats get used to a particular routine, and learn to expect your work schedule. If your job changes, the kids go back to school or leave for college, or you go on vacation, the inner feline "clock" is disrupted. Your absence causes stress that your cat seeks to relieve, often in predictable ways.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Dogs typically vocalize and try to escape, destroying property and sometimes injuring themselves. Cats sometimes cry or get underfoot, but not to the same extent as dogs. My Seren gets inside my suitcase and "unpacks" the clothes, for example.

The more classic kitty response is to show no reaction when you leave. Instead, they wait until you're gone, find the location that smells most like you—such as your bed—and then urinate or defecate. Cats don't mean to "act bad," they just miss you so much they can't help themselves.

Sharing their own scent with urine or feces helps calm them down, and reduces the cat's feeling of stress. But messing the bed increases owner angst, and when you react with anger, the kitty's stress level increases even more. Without meaning to, owners can create a vicious cycle of escalating anxiety.

Calming Kitty Angst

Cats recognize you're preparing to leave by paying attention to subtle clues, such as spritzing on perfume or picking up your keys. You can take advantage of this, and desensitize your cat to common triggers.

Here are a few things to try:

  • Freshen up at odd times throughout the day. Kitty has likely learned you only apply your lipstick before walking out the door. Let her see you do it other times, too. Soon, the lipstick won't be an inner-stress trigger.
  • Leave the suitcase out two weeks before your vacation. Move clothes into and out of the suitcase daily, so she no longer associates you leaving with packing the overnight bag. Make the suitcase a happy place by tossing cat toys inside.
  • Jingle and carry around the car keys or your briefcase or purse a dozen times each day, not just when you prepare to leave. Cats stop caring about these triggers when they seem them all the time.
  • Go in and out the door twenty times in a row, until the cat ignores you altogether. Do this for two or three days in a row, and then gradually increase your "outside" time to one minute, three minutes, five minutes, and so on before returning inside. Doing this builds your cat's tolerance level while desensitizing her to departures, and also trains her to understand you always return, no matter how long you're gone.
  • Most problem behaviors happen within twenty minutes of your departure, so distracting the cat during this critical timeframe can help prevent her from going to the bathroom on your bed. Give her catnip, or ask another family member to pet the cat or engage her in a game. Offer the cat a food-puzzle toy stuffed with a favorite smelly treat she must work to remove. A cat using its brain to solve a fun puzzle can't be scared at the same time.
  • Do you have favorite music you play while at home? Playing familiar music the cat associates with your presence can be soothing. In fact, research has shown harp music works as a natural sedative, and actually puts cats to sleep.

By the way, cello music doesn't work; at least my playing doesn't soothe Seren. Instead, it turns her into an "ack-ack-acking" music critic. You just can't please some kitties.