Pet Connection: Help your cat cope while you’re away

When you come home from work, is it to find that your cat has peed on the bed, yowled so desolately all day that the neighbors inquire a little nervously about her well-being, or scratched to ribbons the chair that you just had reupholstered with that expensive fabric? Don’t chalk it up to spite. Your cat may be suffering from a condition that almost no one associates with the feline species: separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is more commonly associated with dogs, but despite their reputation for independence, cats can develop it as well, especially if they were orphaned as kittens or weaned too early. These cats may express their anxiety in destructive ways, such as scratching furniture.

Older cats can develop separation anxiety in the wake of a divorce or death in the family. They are often more attached to people than they are given credit for, and cats who lose owners this way may pace and cry in search of them.

Other signs of separation anxiety include depression, sulking, fighting with other cats, refusing to eat, not using the litter box, spraying urine on the owner’s clothing and compulsive grooming behaviors, such as licking or pulling at hair until it comes out.

Why do cats do these things? It makes them feel better. Take spraying urine on your bedding or clothing – please! Your belongings carry your scent, and applying her own scent to them makes your cat feel more secure, almost as if you’re there. It’s a compliment of sorts, even if it’s one you’d rather not receive.

Are you doomed to life with a bald, angry cat who doesn’t want you to leave the house? You might not be able to cure your cat’s separation anxiety, but you can probably manage it successfully by enriching the environment and offering more playtime and attention.

To keep your cat’s mind off your absence, make being home more interesting for him. Leave out a puzzle toy filled with a meal’s worth of kibble. The time spent releasing the food from the toy is time not spent being destructive. And most cats tend to settle down after the first half-hour that you’re gone.

Rotate favorite interactive toys so your cat doesn’t have a chance to get bored. Put them out only when you’re going to be away from home.

Give your cat some screen time – TV screen, that is. Turn on the TV to a nature channel or play a DVD made for cats. The sights and sounds of birds, fish, squirrels and other animals can help hold a cat’s interest.

Offer a room with a view – and a gym. Install a window perch so your cat can watch the squirrels outside, and place a tall cat tree in an interesting spot so he can get some exercise climbing up and down it.

Provide live entertainment in the form of a bird feeder set in front of the window or an aquarium placed where your cat can see it but not access it.

If possible, build an enclosure in your yard that your cat can access. A chance to laze in the sun and roll in the grass is relaxing for everyone, including cats.

Give your cat a favorite treat when you leave, not when you come home.

Spend a few minutes once or twice a day playing with or petting your cat. If your cat knows he’ll get attention when you’re home, he’s less likely to be anxious when you’re gone.

If all else fails, consult a veterinary behaviorist. She may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication that can help your cat stay calm.