Does Your Cat Hold Grudges?

Separation anxiety can be one reason your cat behaves strangely when you return from a trip. Here are some ways to help.

Ahh, its so wonderful to come back from a trip with an extra day to unwind for a change. After being away for two weeks, youre excited to see your cat. Shes delighted to see you, and you greet each other several times. Then you go off to unpack …. and there she goes – right in your suitcase, urinating all over your folded clothes. To you, it may seem obvious that your cat is angry because you left her – and this is the way shes wreaking vengeance on you. But can a cat really hold a grudge?


Cats and Vengeance
Ask many cat companions, 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. “Cats dont hold grudges,” says Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and director of behavior services at VCA South Shore Animal Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts. “A grudge involves malicious behavior requiring forethought. There is also moral intent; something that happens is perceived as right or wrong. But there is no proof that cats or any other animals think that way.”

Anger involving grudges or revenge is solely a human emotion, says Dr. Schwartz. 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 cats separation anxiety, says Dr. Schwartz. “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 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, says Dr. Schwartz. 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 and getting agitated.

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 “Vengeful” Behavior
Whenever you feel that your cat is acting out of revenge, remember, says Dr. Schwartz, “that revenge is characteristic of people, not cats. 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 cats anxiety level.

“Before you go on a trip, spend some extra time with your cat,” says Dr. Schwartz. “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 youre 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 wont see him as a threat. While youre away, your cats anxiety may not rise as excessively. And when you return, your cat probably wont 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.

Youll 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 cats behavior to anxiety or a grudge (despite the scientific evidence pointing against it), 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.