Signs of separation anxiety are not as obvious in cats as they are in dogs. When diagnosing and treating any behaviour problem, a thorough history and physical exam are essential. That being said, your cat’s ‘overattachment’ to you, her attempts to get to you through closed doors, and to interfere with your leaving, may well be signs of separation anxiety. What does she do when you are not at home? Other recognized signs of separation anxiety in cats, which occur ONLY in the owner’s absence (and usually only after a minimum absence of eight hours), are inappropriate urination/defecation (house soiling), vomiting, excessive vocalization, overgrooming and decreased appetite. A cat exhibiting decreased appetite may develop a potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver if the owner’s absence is prolonged.
What to do?
The most important step is to decrease your cat’s dependence on you. This can be very difficult for an owner because it involves totally ignoring; no petting, talking to or looking at the cat for several weeks (the duration to be determined by progress reports discussed with your veterinarian). In some cases, ‘antianxiety’ or antidepressant medication may be necessary. Everyone should ignore her for 15 to 20 minutes prior to leaving and upon returning home.
Prior to your leaving, she may be given a distracting toy such as a kitty kong (a hollow plastic toy which can contain dry food or treats) or a toilet roll. Seal the ends of the roll after placing some dry food or a few of her favourite treats inside and make large enough holes in the sides to let the food or treats come through as she plays with it. Leaving the television or a radio on may be helpful. In addition, you should keep her out of your room. Since she bangs on the door and cries when separated from you, this behaviour will also have to be addressed. While opening the door stops the behaviour immediately, it also reinforces it as she is rewarded by seeing you. In effect, she has learned that, by being annoying, she gets what she wants. Ignoring the behaviour will eventually be successful, in most cases, but can take some time and may not be acceptable to your housemates.
You may deter this behaviour by using a remote punishment such as hanging a can containing several pennies over the outer doorknob by a string which runs under the closed door to your location (be it a bathroom or bedroom) so that you may release the can at the first bang or meow. The clatter will deter the behaviour. The string should be long enough that you do not have to leave your position to reset the device but merely pull the string until the can is back in position. Once the banging/ meowing has been stopped, you may return to a more normal relationship with her.
An additional step is to encourage her to ‘get a life’ that does not revolve around you. Numerous interactive toys are available from pet stores and veterinary clinics. The addition of climbing structures would enhance her environment. One other consideration would be to get another cat. While the presence of another cat will not affect the level of anxiety your cat feels when you leave, the social interaction can certainly enhance her life. Introducing another cat, however, is a whole other topic.