Although your cat is unlikely to contract COVID-19, the pandemic presents new threats to pets and people alike.

According to studies and reports, your cat is more likely to suffer separation anxiety than you are to catch Coronavirus in South Africa right now.

On 7 June, IOL reports that 8% of the country’s population has or had Covid-19. By contrast, Science Focus points out that a study in Brazil previously found 10% of cats are prone to separation anxiety; in a post-lockdown world this proportion is set to rise.

Many of us have enjoyed months in our cats’ company 24/7. As we begin to return to work, studies and to some degree of socialising in lockdown phase 3, you may be asking yourself what you can do to ease your feline(s) through the next change.

You can protect your kitty from this difficult syndrome by understanding it and taking steps to prevent, or recognise, diagnose and treat it, with the help of a pet professional.


What exactly is separation anxiety in cats?

Manhattan Cats defines it as “a dislike of and discomfort with solitude”. It’s not widely understood in cats, but it is in dogs. In 20 – 40% of cases referred to behavioural specialists, it’s the second most common disorder in American dogs with the first being aggression. It’s rarely recognised and therefore even less frequently diagnosed in cats who may be suffering silently. Or, not so silently…


What causes cats to suffer separation anxiety?

Being solitary creatures, cats are inherently more independent than pack-living dogs, but can suffer emotionally when there’s a change in routine, access to primary human or pet presence in the home, for example you change meal times, suddenly go away on a work trip, you have visitors to stay or you get a new pet.
Other felines, Manhattan Cats points out, are “truly social creatures” who develop powerful emotional attachments to people and other pets.
Shelter cats may have been weaned too early, or simply be so relieved to finally have a forever home and a kind carer that they are terrified you’ll abandon them and can’t relax.
Depression can lead to it, as well, and in some cases it can also be genetic. Highly-strung purebreds like Siamese or Burmese can be particularly prone.


What are the symptoms of feline separation anxiety?

There are a variety of possible symptoms that point to the disorder, however it takes a vet and a pet behaviourist to diagnose and treat it. You may notice signs of:

  • excessive vocalisation – meowing, caterwauling
  • destructive behaviour – scratching, knocking items over
  • urination in inappropriate places
  • defecation in inappropriate places
  • aggression
  • agitation-anxiety
  • excessive licking or self-grooming
  • anxious (fast) eating
  • avoiding or refusing food
  • clinginess – unwillingness to be without a trusted human
  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • disengaging emotionally and geographically – self-isolating
  • depression-apathy
  • absence of energy
  • presence of disinterest

Some of these symptoms are common in other conditions too. PetCube points out that before a cat anxiety diagnosis can be made, it’s important to consider physical health problems. “Based on the symptoms,” they continue, “your vet will know what to look out for. They may check for a urinary tract infection, hyperthyroidism, intestinal disease, skin issues, allergies, and parasites.” If the cat is genetically prone to separation anxiety, the vet may prescribe medication. If the cat is physically fine, they may refer you to an animal behaviourist for qualified therapy and treatment.
A pet behaviourist may recommend that you alter your arriving and leaving rituals, advise you on how best to respond to signs of stress in your cat (i.e. when not to respond to the meow and when to cuddle and comfort), and help you identify and address anxiety triggers, like the sound of your car keys signalling that you’re about to go.

How can I prevent separation anxiety in my feline friend?
There are ways to encourage mental, emotional and physical wellbeing and discourage the neuroses (or neural pathways) that lead to the syndrome.


A pet behaviourist may suggest you:

  • Provide toys and other physical and mental stimulation tools like a scratch post, indoor cat tree (for climbing), an out-of-reach bird feeder (for watching. ONLY!), puzzle feeders, treats hidden around the home, or an interactive pet food dispenser like PetCube Bites 2.
  • Encourage playtime – solo (see toys above) and partnered. This may involve a game your cat loves (like chasing a feather on a string) or a gentle groom from her number one human.
  •  Desensitise your cat’s anxiety triggers. If you putting your boots on causes your cat to run and hide, or start wailing, it’s possibly because it’s an anxiety trigger – an indication from you that suggests to her that you are leaving (and may never return? She might see it that way in the throes of the condition). Once you’ve identified the triggers with a pet behaviourist, you can start to neutralise their impact by switching it up. Pull on those boots and sit down on the couch to watch Netflix. Rattle your keys and then give kitty a healthy treat and go prepare dinner. Press the security gate buzzer and then groom your complaining kitty cat. By interrupting the associations, you can lessen the anxiety.
  • Ease into new patterns – this takes some work. If you’ve been home full-time and are returning to work soon, it’s a good idea to prepare your cat a while beforehand by starting to leave the house for short bursts and then coming back. You can slowly increase the length of time you’re away. This will hopefully give them time to adjust to you being gone more, and to the new format of their days. The toys, games, attention, and self-discipline from you will support this and hopefully, you’ll soon both be able to part ways temporarily, assured that there will be more cuddles coming (kitty), allowing you to focus on other matters as well.


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