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Separation Anxiety in Cats

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by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice?  Try telling that to New York flight attendant Steve Boyington.  “About five years ago”, recalls Steve, “I found a dog wandering around a pier in the meat-packing district of Manhattan. It looked exactly like a Dogo Argentino, the so-called Argentinian Mastiff.  He was a bit thin, was losing some of his hair, and he needed to be neutered. But was very friendly, and after spending some quality time on the pier with him, I took the plunge and brought him home.”

For the next five days, Steve and his pal “Alex” were inseparable.  Alex was taken to the groomer, then to the veterinarian, and then to Central Park.  On Day 6, Steve was due to fly to California as part of his work schedule.  “I asked my neighbor down the hall if she could stop by the apartment a few times a day to walk and feed Alex.  She’s a good friend and is a fellow dog lover, and she readily agreed.”  Steve shudders as he recalls the events of that week.  “I arrived in San Francisco late, and decided to call home the next morning to check on how Alex was doing.  My neighbor told me that she had put Alex in a nearby kennel until I returned! I asked her why, and she said that five minutes after I left, Alex started barking and scratching and digging at the door.”  Steve adds, “By that evening, Alex had literally eaten the entire lower half of the door frame, and had nearly chewed his way out of the apartment, through the door and wall.”

Separation anxiety is a dislike of and discomfort with solitude.  It is a common behavioral disorder of dogs, accounting for approximately 20 – 40% of cases referred to behavior specialists in the U.S., ranking second only to aggression.  Younger dogs (< 2) and older dogs (>9) are often  affected.  A history of being adopted from an animal shelter is common.  Dogs with separation anxiety display destructive and inappropriate behaviors, the most common being excessive barking, howling, and whining, urinating and/or defecating, destructive behavior, and occasionally excessive drooling. 

Flustered by the amount of destruction that Alex had caused, Steve searched for and found a more appropriate home for Alex: his parents’ farm in upstate New York. “They were retired, with five dogs and three acres of land.  Alex took to it very quickly.  And I decided that a cat might be a more appropriate companion for a Manhattanite who travels as much as I do.”

Steve went to his local shelter to look for the perfect cat.  Millie, a black and white female cat, had been owned by a family that moved to an apartment that didn’t allow pets of any kind.  Steve and Millie bonded at the shelter, and an hour later, the happy couple were on their way back to Steve’s apartment.  Millie adored Steve, rubbing against him, sitting on his lap, and prancing in front of him when he would get up and walk around the apartment.  The attention was worse at night.  “She would literally sit and wait for me to get into bed.  Then she would jump up on the bed and snuggle next to me, shifting her body a hundred times a night, as she looked for her most comfortable position.  Sometimes, that was right on top of my head!”

Millie’s affection didn’t extend to Steve’s houseguests, however.  “She was very standoffish around my friends.  Sometimes, he was downright grouchy, growling at them if they petted him for more than a few seconds, and even swatting at a friend when he tried to pick her up!”

Millie’s possessive behavior got worse.  “She became very vocal, meowing incessantly unless I petted her.  I began to realize that her constant shifting positions while I slept were actually her attempts to wake me so I could pay attention to her.  She would get agitated when I would get ready to leave the apartment.  Once, when I went away on a flight, I came home to find that she had licked all the hair off of her belly, and had defecated and urinated behind the couch. I noticed that she would really get agitated whenever I took out my luggage.  I finally took her to my vet, who assured me she was healthy.  He referred me to a behaviorist.  I couldn’t believe it when the behaviorist told me that Millie was exhibiting signs of separation anxiety! What are the odds of this happening to me twice, with two different species?!!”

While separation anxiety is fairly common in dogs, it is rarely diagnosed in cats.  While dogs instinctively want to be part of a pack, cats are typically loners, and are not as likely to get distressed when their owner is away.  However, some cats are truly social creatures, and they develop strong bonds with people and other animals.  When these relationships get disrupted in any way, cats may exhibit signs of separation anxiety.

Amy Marder is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, and is the owner of New England Behavior Associates in Lexington, Massachusetts.  According to Dr. Marder, the criteria for diagnosis of separation anxiety in cats have not been clearly defined. Besides displaying clingy and possessive behavior, cats with separation anxiety may display signs such as inappropriate urination and/or defecation, vomiting, vocalization, excessive grooming, and poor appetite.  “Housesoiling is a very common complaint for a cat with separation anxiety”, says Dr. Marder. “For whatever reasons, cats with separation anxiety tend to defecate on their owners’ beds”.  A dirty litterbox should be ruled out first, cautions Marder, because some cats housesoil when their owners are away because their litterbox is not being cleaned. “Cats demonstrate separation anxiety primarily when their owners are away for a few days”, says Marder.  “Unlike dogs, they hardly ever show signs when their owners are gone on a regular workday”. Existing behavior problems seem to become exacerbated in cats that have separation anxiety, according to Dr. Marder. “Spraying cats seem to spray after their owners get back from a trip, and aggressive cats (i.e. cats with play aggression, and those cats that like to bite when petted) seem to bite more after owners get back from trips”, she warns.  “In fact, I’ve seen an occasional cat attack their owners when they leave the apartment!”, says Marder.

Treatment of canine separation anxiety has typically involved a behavior modification program with or without the use of anti-anxiety drugs.  Typically, dog owners are told to ignore their dog for about a half hour before leaving the house. Departures should be low-key, with no fanfare.  Before leaving, dog owners should leave a special item for the dog, like a food-filled toy or treat, so the dog associates something positive with the owner’s departure.  When returning, owners are to ignore their dog, interacting with him only when he’s calm and relaxed.  This rewards him for calm behavior.  Punishment for bad behavior while the owner was gone, such as urinating or defecating, should never be done.  During the rest of the time at home, owners of dogs with separation anxiety should interact with the dog only when the dog is calm, and at the owner’s own initiative.  Again, this teaches the dog that he is more likely to get attention if he is relaxed.  The dog is allowed to lie down near the owner, but physical contact should be discouraged.   Dog owners are also encouraged to put on their coat or take out their keys (cues that tell a dog when owners are ready to leave) at times other than departure.  This helps teach a dog to become indifferent to those cues.

Treatment in cats is similar.  “I followed my behaviorist’s advice, and didn’t make a big deal about my departures and arrivals, and I didn’t pat Millie or pay her any attention when she rubbed up against me and meowed at me” says Steve.  “Ignoring her wasn’t easy,” he confesses.  Steve also staged a few “fake” departures.  “I took out my suitcases and grabbed my keys, but then went over to Millie and lavished her with attention.  The next day, I did it again, but this time, I went to the door and really acted as if I was going to leave.  But I turned around quickly and patted her and played with her instead.”  Finally, Steve went through the departure ritual, and actually did leave the apartment, but came right back in after a minute and gave Millie more attention.  Over the course of a few weeks, Steve did this at least once a day, varying the time he spent out of the house.  Millie soon learned that the departure cues didn’t always mean that Steve would be gone for a long time.  While some behaviorists suggest getting a companion cat, Dr. Marder cautions that this may or may not work. “There are cats who live with other cats that show signs of separation anxiety”, she says.

Most dogs respond well to behavioral therapy for separation anxiety, however, some need additional therapy, in the form of psychoactive medication.  This may be true of cats as well.  Anxiety is the underlying feature of separation anxiety syndrome, and control of anxiety using medications that interfere with the physiologic stress response may be the most useful in alleviating clinical signs of separation anxiety. Clomipramine hydrochloride (marketed as Clomicalm, by Novartis), is a tricyclic antidepressant that is licensed in the United States for the treatment of canine separation anxiety.  The drug reduces the clinical signs of separation anxiety by affecting the chemical neurotransmitters in the brain.  Dogs receiving clomipramine hydrochloride experience a decreased level of fear and anxiety and increased responsiveness to behavior modification protocols.  Interestingly, clomipramine has been effective in the treatment of urine spraying and marking in cats, and the drug is licensed in Australia for this purpose.  There are many anti-anxiety drugs available for use in cats.  Consult your veterinarian as to which drug might be the most appropriate, if behavior modification techniques alone are ineffective.

Fortunately, Steve wasn’t faced with the chore of medicating Millie. “The behavior modification worked well”, he says.  “Millie’s still very affectionate, but she’s definitely not as clingy.  Arrivals and departures are fairly routine, which only seems right” he laughs.  “After all, I am a flight attendant”.

                   

Updated 2/9/06