Scaredy Cat

Why is your cat acting out? Study reveals 7 signs of anxiety

A new study reveals exactly what pet owners need to look out for — and why cats may be acting out at home.

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When it comes to pet anxiety, dogs take the biscuit. Our Good Boys and Good Girls are infamous for the zoomies, fear of fireworks, and even fear of heights.

But, just like their canine peers, pet cats can and do get serious anxiety. A new study reveals exactly what pet owners need to look out for — and why cats may be acting out at home.

In the study, researchers gave 130 cat owners a questionnaire to assess their cats' separation-related behavior problems. The research was conducted among pet owners in Juiz de Fora, a city in Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil, and involved 223 cats.

The survey was based on similar studies conducted in dogs. Owners answered questions about themselves, and their cats’ behaviors, including how the cats acted when their humans were away. They also reported general information about the cats' lifestyles and environments.

What they found suggests some cats suffer from serious separation anxiety when their owners aren't around — and offer some small hope that perhaps your cat does love you, after all.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Taken together, they answer some of cat owners’ most pressing questions about their feline friend's mental well-being when they are left to their own devices.

What does cat separation anxiety look like?

The researchers identify seven ways to tell whether your cat is experiencing separation anxiety. In all, more than 13 percent of cats in the study showed some sign of behavioral issues when their owners were away.

The most common sign of cat anxiety? Destructive behavior. This problematic reaction was seen in 20 of the 30 cats who showed any sign of stress upon being left alone.

Other signs of separation anxiety included:

  • Excessive meowing (19 cats)
  • Peeing in inappropriate places (18 cats)
  • Depression or apathy (16 cats)
  • Aggressive behavior (11 cats)
  • Agitation (11 cats)
  • Pooping in inappropriate places (7 cats)

Why do only some cat owners have problematic pets?

Not all cat owners appear equal when it comes to their cat's potential for anxiety. The cats most likely to spiral out of control when left to their own devices lived in homes with certain features:

  • No female adults humans
  • More than one female adult human
  • Owners aged 18 to 35 years
  • No other cats
  • No cat toys (figures...)

Are pet cats more likely to have anxiety than dogs?

The new research delves into cats’ psyches, providing new information that could help cat owners manage their pets’ behavior. And previous studies have looked at similar issues in cat's classic counterparts — dogs.

A study published in March in the journal Scientific Reports found that dogs are most likely to show problematic, anxiety-related behavior based on scary noises, with fireworks being a particularly strong trigger.

Another major source of anxiety in dogs was fear, including that of other dogs, strangers, and new situations, the study revealed.

Separation anxiety shows up in dogs, too, as Inverse reported at the time. Curiously, that specific source of anxiety was more likely to affect male than female dogs, research shows.

Ultimately, it might not matter the species — our pets can and do feel anxiety. So what can owners do about it?

Can you treat pet anxiety?

The new study casts doubt on the stereotype that cats always prefer to be left alone, the researchers say.

In reality, cats and their owners form strong social bonds. That means that when you leave, your kitty may be missing you just as much as your pup does. They might just express their love in different ways, like tearing up the couch, instead of waiting patiently by the door for you to come home.

The survey results two relatively easy fixes cat owners can try to help alleviate their cat's anxiety:

  • Buy some new cat toys
  • Adopt another cat (because once you have one, why not get another?)

For now, though, how your cat handles you being away might be moot. With much of the world still under lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a good chance most of us aren’t going anywhere for quite a while.

Abstract: Identifying and preventing the occurrence of separation-related problems (SRP) in companion animals are relevant to animal welfare and the quality of human-pet interactions. The SRP are defined as a set of behaviors and physiological signs displayed by the animal when separated from its attachment person. In cats, SRP has been insufficiently studied. Thus, the objective of this study was to develop a questionnaire for cat owners which identifies behaviors that may indicate SRP, as well as relates the occurrence of SRP to the management practices applied in the sampled cats. The associations of SRP with cats’ characteristics, as well as owner, environmental, and management traits were investigated. The questionnaire was developed based on the scientific literature about separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and a few papers in cats, and it was completed by 130 owners of 223 cats. Analysis of owners’ answers was done through categorization and acquisition of relative frequencies of each response category, followed by Fisher’s exact test, chi-square tests in contingency table and Multiple Correspondence Analysis. Among the sampled animals, 13.45% (30 / 223) met at least one of the behavioral criteria we used to define SRP. Destructive behavior was the most frequently reported behavior (66.67%, 20 / 30), followed by excessive vocalization (63.33%, 19 / 30), urination in inappropriate places (60.00%, 18 / 30), depression-apathy (53.33%, 16 / 30), aggressiveness (36.67%, 11 / 30) and agitation anxiety (36.67%, 11 / 30) and, in lower frequency, defecation in inappropriate places (23.33%, 7 / 30). The occurrence of SRP was associated with the number of females living in the residence (P = 0.01), with not having access to toys (P = 0.04), and no other animal residing in the house (P = 0.04). Separation-related problems in domestic cats are difficult to identify due to the limited amount of knowledge regarding the issue. The questionnaire developed in this study supported identification of the main behaviors likely related to SRP in cats and could be used as a starting point for future research.
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