By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 1 September 2011)
Feline personalities are shaped by both biology and environment. Cats with timid, nervous temperaments may become clingy due to specific phobias or the feline equivalent of generalized anxiety disorder. Cats are also likely to develop needy personalities if they have suffered abandonment, deprivation, or poor socialization as kittens.
Certain cat breeds (such as the Siamese) tend to be more affectionate, whereas others are usually more independent. Not all affectionate cats are clingy, but they may be more likely to develop this trait, particularly when under stress.
Symptoms of Over-Dependence in Cats
Clingy cats want to be with their owners constantly. They are often very vocal, demand attention frequently, and try to maintain physical contact (such as sitting on an owner’s lap) as much as possible. They follow their owners around, become distressed when left alone, and may lose their appetites or vomit when their owners leave the house. In extreme cases, they develop neurotic habits such as:
- Pulling out fur
- Sucking on wool or fabric
- Destructive scratching
- Spraying/urinating or defecating outside the litter box
If a formerly independent cat has suddenly become needy, this usually signals a medical problem or anxiety about a specific event, such as:
- The arrival of a new baby or pet
- The death of a beloved animal or person
- Moving house
If a cat that wasn’t needy in the past suddenly begins exhibiting signs of clinginess, bring her in for a veterinary check-up to rule out illness. If the clinginess has been triggered by a recent change, provide extra attention to get her through the rough patch. With a little extra support, most cats eventually return to normal. However, if the problem is a regular personality trait rather than a temporary reaction, the following approaches can be used to reduce separation anxiety and increase confidence and independence.
How to Reduce Separation Anxiety in Cats
Clingy cats usually suffer from separation anxiety. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to reduce separation anxiety in over-dependent cats:
- Leave the radio or television on when you go out to provide the illusion of company and mask frightening noises.
- Don’t engage in elaborate good-byes or otherwise make a fuss when leaving the house.
- Give a favourite toy or treat to the cat just before you leave so that she’ll associate your leaving with something positive.
- Have keys ready by the door or in a bag so that you can exit quickly.
- When returning home, ignore the cat for 10-15 minutes, especially if she demands attention. Wait until she’s calm and then provide affection.
- If the cat engages in undesirable behaviour such as house soiling or scratching furniture while you’re out, don’t yell or punish her, as this will make stress-induced behaviours worse.
- Provide a hideaway (this can be anything from a fancy carpeted kitty condo to a cardboard box with a doorway cut into it). Add a piece of clothing (unwashed so that it has your scent on it) for comfort. This gives the cat a safe place to retreat when she’s alone and anxious. A comfort object should also be provided if she needs to stay overnight at the vet’s or board somewhere else temporarily.
It can be helpful to engage in a few fake departures to stop the cat panicking whenever she sees you getting ready to leave. Put on your coat and go out for a minute or two, then come back, varying the length of these excursions until the cat learns that not every leave-taking means you’ll be gone for many hours.
How to Reduce Clinginess in Over-Dependent Cats
To help needy cats become more confident and independent:
- Engage in interactive play rather than cuddling.
- Ignore demanding behaviour. Have one or more set times to dispense affection (such as in the evening with a good book or favourite television show), and stick to those routines.
- If the cat begins to knead or suck on your clothing or earlobes (common self-comforting behaviours in needy cats), gently remove her from your lap, get up, and leave the room.
- If she’s fixated on one person, have others share in petting, feeding, playing, and grooming to expand the circle of people with whom she feels comfortable.
- Try a calming feline pheromone product such as Feliway (not all cats respond to it, but many do).
- If the cat is friendly toward other cats, consider adopting a second cat for company, preferably a kitten to reduce the likelihood of dominance struggles, and make sure to handle the introductions properly.
- Sometimes neediness results from boredom. To prevent boredom, provide an enriched environment with plenty of distractions, such as solo toys, healthy treats hidden around the house (assuming the cat is not overweight), cat trees, cat-safe plants, and an entertaining view (such as a bird feeder outside a window).
- Owners who are afraid to let their cats out due to traffic, predators, pet thieves, and other hazards should consider putting up a cat fence or enclosure if they have outdoor space so that they can let their cats out safely. Leash training and taking the cat out for safe excursions is also an option.
- If the cat’s anxiety is causing her to urinate, spray, or defecate in inappropriate places, see Why Cats Soil Outside the Litter Box for deterrents and reconditioning strategies (house soiling may also be caused by a medical problem or a dirty litter box, so if a cat begins soiling around the house, first clean the box and take her for a veterinary check-up before assuming the problem is behavioural).
In extreme cases, if all else fails, a veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or recommend a natural anxiety remedy.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
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- Feline Advisory Bureau. (n.d.). “Cats and Stress.” FabCats.org.
- Hillestad, K.. (2010). “Separation Anxiety in Cats.” PetEducation.com.
- InfoPet.com. (n.d.). “Cats: Behavioural Problems.”
- Plotnick, A. (2006). “Separation Anxiety in Cats.” ManhattanCats.com.