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Handling a Pet's Separation Anxiety

Our vet’s advice on soothing a cat who can’t bear to part with his owner.

Q: I adopted a 4-year-old cat, Silas, from a shelter two months ago. He was fine at first, but a few weeks back he started crying piteously at the door when I leave for work in the morning. What can I do to comfort him?

A: Cats, like dogs, can suffer from separation anxiety. Signs of the disorder are similar for both -- distressed vocalizing when the owner leaves, pacing, loss of appetite, marking territory with urine. (Dogs may engage in destructive behavior, frantically chewing and scratching at windows and doors in an attempt to break free and reunite with the absent owner.) Most pets with separation anxiety have similar histories: They didn’t start life in a loving, nurturing home. In about 50 percent of cases, they’ve been adopted from a pound or shelter, like Silas. The traumatic events of their past destroyed their confidence, so when animals with this background unite with new, caring owners, they tend to bond with them very closely. They do what vets call shadowing, or “Velcro behavior,” sticking close to the kind new owner, following her from room to room. In his early days with you, Silas didn’t exhibit separation anxiety because the relationship was still new. Once the bond was forged, though, the anxious behavior followed.

You can retrain Silas and relieve his distress by arranging his life so that good things happen while you’re away. You might, for example, schedule his morning feeding for just before you walk out the door so that he associates your leaving with the pleasure of food. You can strew treats and toys around the house that aren’t available for Silas when you’re there, but only appear when you’re out. That way, the cat’s anxiety is replaced by curiosity and, ultimately, enjoyment. Create places he can explore throughout the house: climbing frames, a window perch. Positioning a bird feeder just outside the window provides a sort of cat TV.

When you come back in the evening, offer a low-key greeting and immediately pick up the goodies so that Silas understands they’re only there for him when you’re away. (If he hasn’t eaten, take away the food. You can give him his regular evening meal later. He’ll have gotten just half his daily food allotment and will be hungrier in the morning, making him more likely to eat when you’re gone. But check with your vet before you make depriving your cat of food part of his retraining.) Eventually, Silas will begin to associate your leaving with all the things he likes (except your companionship). These strategies should work, but if all else fails, ask your vet about antianxiety medications for your cat while you work on the retraining.

Nicholas H. Dodman heads the animal behavior department at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.