How to Help Soothe Your Cat's Separation Anxiety

How to make vacations less stressful for your cats

Woman kissing cat
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Vacations are such great fun, but result in many cat behavior problems either during the owner's absence or even when you return. While some cats do well traveling by car, by plane, or staying in hotels, most do best when they stay home with a pet sitter. Even if kitty doesn't want to hit the road with you, she can get her tail in a twist when left behind.

Cats typically act out with aggression toward pet sitters, or baptize the house with urine or leave other potty deposits out of their angst - including your bed!

They also may turn into scratch-maniacs, and target illegal objects.

Even cats that do well in the owner's absence can surprise you. As soon as you come home, Kitty either begins "spreading the joy" with creative potty behavior, scratches, or acts fearful (and sometimes aggressive) toward beloved humans. What's going on?

Vacations and Cat Behavior Problems

We've said it before, but it bears repeating: cats love the status quo. They adore routine and thrive on the same-old-same-old to the point that changing anything can potentially cause stress. The humans Kitty adores are the most important part of a cat's environment and routine. So when owners leave, they've removed two vitally important ingredients to the cat's emotional health.

Stressed cats use all sorts of techniques to relieve their angst. Self-scent calms them down. That's why the upset cat may "act badly" with hit-or-miss litter box behavior or increased scratching, both of which often targets owner-scented items.

Cats closely bonded to their people, and aging cats appear to be more prone to separation anxiety, which is what happens when you leave Kitty behind.

It also can take the cat anywhere from five days to two weeks to adjust and accept a new routine - some even longer. Just consider how long it takes some cats to accept new cat introductions or to adjust to a new home.

Both of these demonstrate how inflexible they potentially can be. So a stranger in the house (pet sitter), who doesn't adhere to the known schedule, also adds stress.

Just about the time the cat becomes used to the "new routine" (you being gone and the pet sitter's schedule), what happens? Why owners return from vacation! Once again, the status quo turns on its ear. On top of that, you no longer "smell" familiar because kitty hasn't been able to refresh her cheek-rub markings while you were away. As a result, some cats hide or become defensive, or again "act badly."

Please be aware this has NOTHING to do with being vindictive and "getting back at you" because they were left behind. It instead has everything to do with normal cat behavior and attempting to relieve stress. You can help relieve the angst with these tips.

7 Tips for Soothing Vacation Stress

  • Ask the pet sitter to meet kitty as many times as possible well in advance of your absence. She should offer favorite treats or play a fun game for cats that enjoy such things, to help identify "good stuff" with the new person's presence.
  • Bring out the suitcase in advance (a week or more) so kitty becomes used to it. Toss in treats or toys so it's a positive association for the cat.
  • If your cat doesn't care for strangers, advise the caretaker of that fact. Simply being in the house with you also present and accepting can encourage cats to be more tolerant. Confining "scaredy cats" to one large room or area of the house can reduce stress because the cat has less territory to patrol and also allows the caretaker to know where the cat is and better monitor health.
  • Write down your routine and ask the pet sitter to follow it. Meals, playtime, grooming, lap-sitting interactions and other cat-specific important benchmarks should be followed as closely as possible.
  • Your cat may not wish to play patty-cake with the stranger, but simply maintaining the routine can help alleviate potential problems. If you know the routine will change while gone, implement some of these changes several days before your departure so the cat has already begun the transition without the further stress of your absence.
  • Leave behind a scented item - a tee shirt you've worn but not washed, for example. Leaving this in the cat's bed can help your cat feel comforted. Some cats appreciate your recorded voice/message to be played while you're gone but others become upset, so test this before you leave to see if it might help.
  • Before you depart, have each member of the family that your cat loves choose a pair of socks from their wardrobe. Rub-rub-rub the socks all over the cat (he'll think it's a massage love-fest!). Seal each pair in a separate plastic baggy. When you return from vacation, slip on the cat-scented socks so that you once again carry the cat's signature identification that "you are family."

Be patient. It takes some cats several days to readjust to an owner's return. Know that the cat isn't doing this out of meanness. Let the cat come to you, rather than forcing the issue, and soon you'll have the homecoming you both will enjoy!