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One of my cats gets (apparently?) very upset whenever I am in the bathroom. Meaning, she meows loudly and frequently in a way that sounds, to my ear, sometimes like distress, and sometimes like she's being tortured.

Now, I might suspect a medical condition, or that's she's in extreme pain... but she only does this when I'm in the bathroom. I might be using the toilet, or taking a shower, or just washing my hands; I haven't been able to identify it with any particular activity. It maybe helps if I close the door (I usually leave it open when I'm in there and have only just now tried shutting her out), at least until she pushes the door open and starts again. She doesn't even seem to be paying attention to me, necessarily; sometimes she'll stare at the other door (between the bathroom and bedroom, which I always keep closed) and complain. Sometimes she'll complain from the hall, but in general, she doesn't seem afraid to enter the bathroom.

As soon as I leave the bathroom, she stops. In fact, if I leave and go sit down, she'll usually wind up on my lap, purring, literally within a minute of the 'distress' behavior. Also, while I usually keep the bathroom door closed when I'm not in it, I'm pretty sure she gets in there sometimes (either because I forget, or she pushes the door open — I don't normally pull it all the way closed so that it latches) and I can't recall her exhibiting this behavior except when I'm in the bathroom.

I don't think she just wants attention, because again, this behavior is only associated with the bathroom. Also, I don't always go sit down after I'm done in the bathroom, and trying to give her attention while I'm still in the bathroom doesn't help.

Does anyone have any theories on what could be bothering her and how (short of building an outhouse) I might go about helping her to calm down?

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    I assume that all your visits in the bathroom are correlated with you using the running water facilities of different sorts (as you mentioned: washing hands, using shower, flushing toilet, etc.). As far as I know cats often have an obsession with running water - both the sight and sound of running water could invoke all sorts of strong emotions in them. It might be related to their natural instinct of seeking running water sources in favor of stagnant water sources for hydration. Did you notice any correlation that her vocalizations get more intense once you open the tap? – lila Mar 15 at 2:55
  • Oh and by the sound of running water I not only mean the direct sound of the water splashing on your hands, etc. but also the distant, low-pitched rumbling sounds made by water pipes located deep inside the walls. They may give your cat the impression that some predator is hiding and growling behind the walls, ready to jump out. Maybe the hydraulic installation in your home is set in such a way that only the pipes supplying the bathroom are close enough to upset your cat. I'm just guessing! – lila Mar 15 at 3:03
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    @lila, she'll be grumpy when I'm sitting on the toilet, or when I'm shaving (electric trimmer, not running the water). If it was related to running water, I would have at least some expectation she'd react to my use of the kitchen sink or the washing machine, but I can't say I've noticed that. I'll try to be more attentive to it, though, maybe try running water when I'm not in the bathroom, etc. I don't think it would be pipe layout; the bathroom is furthest from the water supply. – Matthew Mar 15 at 3:40
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    "Cat ownership means never peeing alone again." Cats are obsessed with bothering people in the bathroom for whatever reason. – Allison C Mar 15 at 13:13
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As per the usual advice, the first step is to consult with your vet. Excessive meowing can be a sign of illness, so it's a good idea to make sure there isn't something physically wrong.

That said, my guess is that it's actually a form of separation anxiety.

People are widely aware of separation anxiety in dogs, but usually don't believe it can happen to cats too. But indeed cats can suffer from anxiety when their owners leave their home territory. Part of the reason why owners don't think cats suffer from this type of anxiety is because the temperament of cats is generally different, and the form their anxiety takes is not as obvious. Some of the signs include frantic meowing, restless pacing, and being unable to settle down.

But why would it be separation anxiety when I'm not leaving the house?

The reason why I think this is because you're usually shutting your cat out of the bathroom. While humans think of their entire house as their home even if there are rooms they aren't allowed to go in, cats only associate areas they've scent marked as their home. I also know from personal experience that it's possible for an area of the house to be perfectly accessible to a cat, and yet for whatever reason the cat refuses to go in that area, and that area is definitely outside its territory, since I had a cat who was very much like that about our kitchen. For more anxious types of cats, going outside the home territory is very anxiety inducing.

What should I do about it?

I don't know if there's a simple solution, but there's a variety of things I can think of trying.

  1. Encourage the cat to include the bathroom as part of its territory. Leave the door to the bathroom open, so the cat has easy access. You could also place something that belongs to the cat in the bathroom, to help spread its smell into the bathroom.

  2. Experiment with anxiety reducers. There are products such as feline pheromone diffusers, or if your cat is very bad, the vet might prescribe anxiety reducing medication. I am personally skeptical of the effectiveness of pheromone diffusers, but this is a situation where they may be helpful.

  3. Make sure going to the bathroom isn't a big deal. It's a normal reaction for owners to try to soothe their cats in situations that seem to upset them, but this makes the problem worse. The ritual of soothing will become associated with your going to the bathroom, so the soothing itself will start making the cat anxious. Therefore, you should try to be completely calm and ignore the cat when going to the bathroom.

  4. Provide distractions from the anxiety. Tire the cat out with play and then feed it to try to encourage it to sleep. If the cat's asleep, it will be too occupied sleeping to bother getting worked up over the bathroom. Alternatively, give it things it really likes as a distraction, such as a food puzzle toy. Make sure you have cat-friendly windows too, as they are great for keeping the cat self-entertained.

You might also benefit from getting a home video camera, so you can see what the cat does when you aren't around. If the bathroom thing is truly a form of separation anxiety, it would be good to confirm the cat isn't also being anxious when you leave the house.

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    So... I've been leaving the bathroom door open, and it seems to be helping. (I'll have a firmer opinion after a week or so.) – Matthew Mar 20 at 3:34

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