Getting “the blues” isn’t just a part of the human condition. Cats are sensitive creatures, so it makes sense they can get depressed under certain circumstances too. We may not attribute specific behaviors to depression, but there are signs and symptoms that may indicate something isn’t quite right with your feline companion.
If your cat no longer greets you with gusto at the front door; meows more or less than usual; snubs his nose at his kitty bowl or isn’t eating at all; or you notice any other changes in behavior, there could be a reason behind it, such as depression.
Our cats aren’t openly displaying the same emotional reactions humans do, and we can’t ask them if they are feeling lonely, sad, happy or stressed out. Instead, we have to look for other behavioral clues as indicators.
Does your cat seem depressed? Here are a few symptoms:
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Hiding or avoiding affection
- Hissing or aggression
- Excessive vocalization
- Change in litter box use
- Less active
- Increased sleeping
- Lack of grooming or too much grooming
Feline depression is an “abnormal behavior in which the cat shows a change in activity, change in vocalization and usually a decrease in appetite,” according to Katherine Houpt, director of Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
Houpt says abnormal behavior isn’t as obvious in cats that are normally more reserved and aren’t prone to seeking attention from their owners.
Physical or Mental Health Problem?
Another problem is there may be an underlying medical condition that mimics depression. Cats are really good at hiding illness. The only way to know for sure is to take your cat to the veterinarian for further evaluation of symptoms and a thorough physical examination. There may be an underlying disease or serious illness that can only be diagnosed by a vet. A pet doctor can do baseline tests, including blood work, chest x-rays and abdominal ultrasound. The vet will be able to determine your cat’s overall health and whether their organs are functioning properly.
“To treat feline depression, physical symptoms need to be addressed first, especially inappetence,” says cat consultant Ingrid King in a Catster article. “A cat who doesn’t eat for 24 to 48 hours is at risk for developing hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), a life-threatening condition.”
As a consultant, King will initially determine if the cat’s basic needs are being met in regard to diet, environment and exercise. Specifically, she reviews the cat’s diet and will make suggestions on how to improve it or recommend supplements; review your cat’s current living situation to make sure it’s toxin-free and look at common psychological stressors; plus look at your cat’s exercise and play routine and make suggestions for improvement.
What Are Some Common Stressors?
Once a physical illness is eliminated as a cause of depression, you can look to other areas of your cat’s life that may be causing depressive behavior. Much of it has to do with their environment because cats are hypersensitive to change.
Here are a few causes of depression and what you can do about it:
- Neglect: Your cat may be in a funk because you aren’t paying enough attention to them. Families get busy and sometimes forget that their cat needs TLC. It may not be a conscious choice of neglect on your part. We assume cats are so independent that they don’t really need us or they can amuse themselves — but even non-social cats need attention.
- Tip: Play with and spend time with them. Do you know what they like to play with? Some cats like to fetch balls with bells in them, chase laser lights, or play with kitty fishing rods with feathers on the end. Others like it when you wad up paper into a ball and throw it across the room. Some cats even like to go on leash walks with their owner. Just remember that your cat walks you, not vice versa. Many cat owners sleep with their cat in their beds and a tuckered-out cat makes for a better night’s for everyone.
- Death of an owner or another animal: Cats form bonds with humans or other cats and animals, so if they lose a buddy, it can be a sad time for them. A divorce, new spouse, a child going away from college may also affect the family cat.
- Tip: Think of how you would want to be treated after a loved one dies — probably with love and compassion. Cats may need a little extra petting or attention. Just be sure they are receptive to it and you aren’t forcing them to be cuddly.
- Pain: Pain is often underdiagnosed, especially in senior cats, and could be the main cause of depression. Pet owners just see a sad cat and are often projecting their own sense of sadness onto their pet. The case is often that they have a terminal illness that is painful and making them feel sick. There are things a hospice or palliative care vet can do to make your cat’s life more comfortable.
- Change in litter: As creatures of habit, cats like their routines and the space they are accustomed to do their business. As mundane as it seems to us, when you move the litter box, it causes a stir for them.
- Tip: One suggestion is to keep the old litter box in its original location until your cat gets used to the new box. Or you could slowly move the new box closer to its new location day by day.
- Change of food: Switching food brands can also be stressful, and they need time to adjust to the new food. Unless cats are used to a variety of foods from birth, it’s rough for a grown cat to switch foods out of left field. It will take patience and persistence to get them to come around.
- Tip: You could try warming it in the microwave or adding tuna juice on top. For more stubborn cats, you may need to place the new food in a bowl and take it away after 30 minutes if it remains untouched. Give him a small portion of his old food instead. When your cat is done and walks away, pick up the food and don’t have any other food around. Do this several times a day and hopefully within a couple days, the cat will start eating the new food. If that doesn’t work, try placing a small amount of the new food on top of the old food. Slowly decrease the old chow with the new food until he’s only eating the new food.
- A move: Packing up and moving pets into a new home is stressful for them, not to mention us. You’ve heard about cats running away from their new homes only to find themselves traveling back to the home they came from. Cats hate moving. They love stability and familiarity. Some cats may be super clingy after a move, and others just want to run away and hide.
- Tip: It’s important not to let them out of the house until they get used to their new surroundings. No matter how much they meow to get out, don’t give them free rein. It may take a few weeks before it’s safe for them to explore outside the home. When you do decide to let them outside, be sure to place familiar objects inside and outside the home, including the outside doors and garden. Cats smell everything, and they’ll feel safe if they know their surroundings are similar.
Some other cat comfort considerations are:
- Making sure the environment is stimulating.
- Open the curtain and blinds or leave the window cracked so they can listen to and watch birds, squirrels or other animals outside.
- Better yet, buy a window perch and cat trees for them to climb, hide, and play on, and scratching posts.
- Catnip may mellow out a cat, but ask a vet about it because some cats may become overly excited or aggressive from this “kitty drug.”
- Some cats respond well to calming pheromone therapy, such as a Feliway diffuser.
What about cat drugs?
Many consider anti-anxiety drugs a last resort. However, a vet may prescribe medications such as trazodone, gabapentin, alprazolam, or midazolam. You may even visit a certified veterinary behaviorist, who may prescribe drugs, and definitely recommend behavior modifications.
“Regardless of the cause, a cat showing signs of depression can benefit greatly from a prompt evaluation by a veterinarian,” according to Jessica Vogelsang, DVM. “If we resist applying the human definitions of mood disorders to our feline friends and instead evaluate them strictly from a cat-friendly perspective, there is often much more we can do to make our beloved kitties happier and healthier.”
While vets can help with medical issues related to depression, keep in mind that depressed cats also need to rely on their humans to give them extra love and compassion by spending time with them, working with them on their “issues,” playing with them, and giving them treats.
If stress and anxiety can be pinpointed, often symptoms will improve or go away altogether. Your cat is part of your family; they deserve the best you can give them. Just think about the healing powers of animals, especially for those with a chronic illness like depression. It goes both ways. We scratch their backs, and they scratch ours.
About the Author
Devin writes from somewhere along the West Coast. He is infected with wanderlust but always tries to bring his dog, Scrummy, along for the ride. You can follow him on Twitter.