Cats and Separation Anxiety

Felines can experience stress when there’s a change in the household. Here’s what you should know.

Vacations are wonderful, but there’s nothing like home sweet home. You drive home from the airport, excited at the thought of sleeping in your own bed, and seeing your beloved cat. And she does seem happy to see you at first, and you greet each other and cuddle several times. Then you go off to unpack …. and there she goes — right into your suitcase, urinating all over your folded clothes. To you, it may feel like your cat is angry because you left her — and this is the way she’s making her feelings known. But can a cat really hold a grudge?


Cats and Vengeance. Ask many cat owners, and they will say “yes.” They swear that cats can and will be vengeful, at times. Besides suitcase antics, people point out the times their cats bite them minutes, or even hours, after they did something their cat disliked — such as grooming it. But animal behaviorists disagree. Anger involving grudges or revenge is solely a human emotion, explain experts. A cat may become aggressive, but not angry and vengeful in the human sense. So what accounts for behavior that looks like feline vengeance? Take the situation of your cat urinating in your suitcase after you return from a trip.  One reason a cat urinates outside his litter box is stress. Your cat may experience stress when you disappear one day and then reappear after a prolonged absence.

This stress may actually be a reflection of your cat’s separation anxiety. Cats and dogs can become very attached to individual people or other house pets, and may experience separation anxiety syndrome when that attachment figure leaves. With cats and dogs, separation anxiety can sometimes even be worse than it is in humans. Therefore, when you return with your suitcase and leave it open, your cat may release his or her anxiety by marking your clothes with urine. (Your suitcase may even resemble a big litter box.) If your cat urinates in your suitcase when you first bring it out to pack for a trip, the animal may be associating your luggage with your absence.

Some experts offer another explanation for this behavior. The suitcase, which you have taken to another place, carries lots of new smells. It may even smell of other animals. Therefore, your cat sprays those odors with his own scent to reclaim his property, which, in this case, includes your suitcase.  Your cat may even spray your luggage because he perceives the unusual smells as a threat.

Preventing Unwanted Behavior. Whenever you feel that your cat is acting out of revenge, remember that your cat is more likely reacting emotionally to whatever he or she is feeling at that moment. The way to prevent this scenario from playing out is to do what you can to lower your cat’s anxiety level. Before you go on a trip, try to spend some extra time with your cat. You can even leave some special treats or new toys for your cat to discover in your absence.

If you have a neighbor or pet sitter who is going to care for your cat while you’re away, arrange for that individual to come over before your trip. Encourage your cat and your caretaker to spend some time together — involving play, grooming and feeding. This way, when your pet sitter arrives, your cat won’t see him as a threat. While you’re away, your cat’s anxiety may not rise as excessively. And when you return, your cat probably won’t feel as nervous when you come in the door from your vacation. Hopefully, this will help prevent a nervous reaction in your cat, such as urinating outside the litter box.You’ll notice when you come in from being away how happy your cat is to see you.

So when you do return, take this opportunity to spend a few extra minutes playing with and soothing your cat. Bring your cat a new toy to play with; this may distract her and lower her anxiety level. (This tactic can also work in cases where you cat seems to “seek revenge” against your ankles after a necessary but unpleasant bath or grooming session.)

Whether or not you attribute your cat’s behavior to anxiety or a grudge (despite the scientific evidence that suggests otherwise), your best bet when you return from a trip is to let your cat welcome you home — and leave the suitcase closed until the coast is clear.