- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
There will inevitably be times when your cat is feeling blue or depressed. They may not be able to say “I’m unhappy,” but erratic tail movements, vocalizations, or behavior changes can be a good indicator that something internal has changed.
However, it’s best to rule out physical issues before reaching a conclusion about their mood. Many of the signs of an unhappy cat can also indicate pain or illness. When in doubt, a trip to the vet can help you make sense of your cat’s unusual behaviors. Cat behaviorist and expert, Dr. Mikel Delgado says that while there can be clear symptoms of cat depression, they might not tell the whole picture. “We can infer, but we can never truly know what’s going on in our cat’s mind,” she says.
If you’re confident that your cat is physically fine, keep an eye out for these clues. There are several ways to determine if depression is the cause of your cat’s behavioral changes.
Signs and Symptoms
If you suspect your cat has become apathetic, you may also want to keep an eye out for other potential symptoms of depression, such as:
Disinterest in normal activities
If a cat loses interest in playing with their toys or engaging in normal behaviors, it could be a sign that they’re not feeling well. Dr. Delgado refers to these normal behaviors as “good welfare signs.” She goes on to say that if your cat is depressed, they tend to have lower energy, lose interest in playing or interacting with you, and fail to engage in other species-specific behaviors. While it’s common for cats to want some alone time to relax, if there’s a significant change in what’s normal for them, they might be depressed.
Increased hiding or withdrawal
It’s common for cats to hide out from time to time.“[But] cats should not be sitting or hiding in one spot all day,” says Dr. Delgado says. If a cat becomes significantly more reclusive than usual, it may be a sign that they’re feeling down.
Hiding can also indicate that a cat isn’t interested in activities they usually enjoy, such as playing with toys or cuddling up with their humans. Cats with depression are generally more fearful, and they may hide to soothe and protect themselves.
Sleeping more or in different locations
Cats sleep an average of 15 hours a day, so if you notice they’re sleeping a lot, it’s not always cause for concern. Dr. Delgado says cats love to sleep and need lots of it, but if they sleep too much, it might signal depression. Also, a change in the location where they normally love to doze off can be a clue that they’re not feeling like themselves.
Cats can be pretty vocal animals, but if you notice a change in their vocalizations, it could indicate that something is awry. In particular, a loud, mournful yowl low in pitch can be their way of saying that they’re unhappy. While purring often means a cat is content, depressed cats may purr more than usual to comfort and soothe themselves. Additionally, excessive purring can also indicate that a cat is unhappy.
Tense body language
Cats speak volumes through their body language, and they have a number of ways of physically communicating that they’re unhappy. If you notice that a cat’s ears are back, their fur is standing on end, or their tail is tucked instead of raised high, they likely aren’t feeling their best. It’s common for cats to tense up while they’re playing, but a happy and healthy cat will relax afterward.
Increased or decreased appetite
Like humans, if a cat is feeling low, it can directly affect their interest in food. If a cat is depressed, they may suddenly stop eating. They may even turn down their favorite treats. While less common, unhappy cats may also increase their food intake as a way to self-soothe. Regardless of whether they’re eating more or less, a change in eating habits can indicate that cats aren’t feeling like their normal happy selves.
Pet parents often think that aggression in cats is simply a response to a threat, but it can actually communicate a number of things, including their mood. Aggression stemming from depression isn’t just a “stop it bite” or occasional hiss; it’s a consistent series of behaviors. Unhappy cats are more likely to perceive things as threats, whether or not they actually are. Subsequently, if a cat is feeling depressed, they often become more hostile and frequently lash out at all you or other cats or pets in the house.
Over- or under-grooming
Grooming is part of a normal and healthy cat routine. However, when a cat is feeling down, their grooming habits can take a sharp turn. A depressed cat may increase or decrease the amount that they groom themselves. Some cats may even stop grooming completely. As a result, unhappy cats often have gnarly, unkempt coats.
If they start over-grooming, you may start to see bald patches on your cat. A trip to the vet can help them get their grooming habits back on track. Your vet can prescribe your cat Clomipramine, used to treat anxiety and depression in cats, to help reduce overgrooming behaviors.
Spraying might seem like an act of rebellion, but it can actually be intended for a cat’s own comfort. According to the Veterinary Ireland Journal, cats will sometimes spray their urine to self-soothe. Surrounding themselves with their own scent can help reduce anxiety. As unhappy cats tend to be more fearful, they will do whatever they can to mitigate the fear, including urinating outside the litter box. This often happens if a particular situation is causing the cat’s low mood.
Scratching is a normal cat behavior, and they scratch as a marking behavior to deposit their scent from glands on their paws. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, cats also scratch to remove the translucent covering (the sheath) from their claws. While scratching is normal, excessive, destructive cat scratching is when cats scratch at household objects that aren’t their scratching posts or acceptable scratching spots rather than their usual, acceptable spots.
Dr. Delgado says this could indicate the cat is stressed or upset. To help with destructive cat scratching, pet parents assess what their cat needs and try redirecting their cat to scratching posts or other normal scratching items.
These additional symptoms also indicate a need to take your cat to the vet:
- not eating or drinking
- excessive scratching
- grooming to a point of hair loss
- withdrawal or hiding may indicate a health concern
5 Causes or Triggers Behind Cat Depression
According to Dr. Delgado, the following are several of the most common reasons for cat depression:
- A change in a cat’s environment. Cats are very sensitive to any change in their lives, big or small. Some changes that might cause a cat to be depressed include a big move to a new home, new furniture, or a partner moving into your home.
- Stress. Like humans, stress is a common reason for cat depression and other feline illnesses. When a life stressor happens to a cat, they can develop symptoms of depression, including aggression and other behavioral issues.
- Other cats. Cats are very particular, so introducing a new cat into their home can lead to all sorts of problems, including depression, because it’s a drastic change. Pet parents wanting to bring another cat into their home should do so properly to avoid unnecessary stress for both felines.
- Grieving. When we lose a precious companion, we grieve their loss. Turns out cats do the same. Cats might not show their grief the same way, but the loss of their companion can make them show signs of depression, such as withdrawal, a change in appetite, overgrooming, changing sleep patterns, and more. To help, pet parents should understand that grief has no timetable, but including extra playtime, extra attention, and patience can help.
- Separation anxiety. Sometimes, pet parents have to spend time away from their cats. There’s a belief that cats can easily cope with long absences from their parent. However, recent studies have shown that cats are more sociable than we think and form special bonds with you. Therefore, they are more likely to show behavior changes, like depression, when you’re gone for long periods.
What’s normal for one cat may not be normal for your cat, so look at changes in their specific behavioral patterns to see if something is amiss. Cats are generally creatures of habit, so when there’s suddenly a shift in their behavior, it’s very unlikely that it’s random. Other family members, as well as your cat sitter, can also help alert you to alarming changes. If you notice changes in your cat’s behavior, it’s best to consult with a vet right away. Talk with them about the changes you’ve noticed in your cat, and they can help you come up with an appropriate treatment plan.
How to Help a Depressed Cat
Dr. Delgado outlines the following checklist pet parents should follow if they suspect their cat is depressed:
- Go to the vet to rule out other medical conditions. It’s important to make sure your cat doesn’t have a serious health problem with the same signs as depression.
- Assess the environment for changes or unusual events that may be happening outside your window. Ask yourself: Has there been a new cat roaming around outside? Has your work schedule changed? To help your cat adapt to these new changes, it’s best to make them feel comfortable by not changing too much at once and maintaining a spot of refuge for them.
- Encourage interactive play and activities. Enrichment is providing the necessary environment for your cat to satisfy their instincts and is important for a cat’s overall wellbeing. Try to initiate different play activities and use new toys. In fact, pet parents who play with their cat more frequently and for longer report fewer behavioral problems in their cat.
- Foster social interactions. It’s a myth that cats are antisocial pets. They desire consistent social interaction and love to show affection to you. Carve out quality time to spend with your cats, such as cuddling on the bed or couch.
- Purchase medication to deal with stressors. If lifestyle changes don’t help, work with your vet to buy the appropriate medications for your cat to help with stressors that might be causing depression. One of these medications is Venlafaxine; studies have shown this medication can help treat depression and other behavioral disorders in cats
- Consult with a behavior professional. Dr. Delgado and other cat behavioral specialists are trained to spot behaviors that can signal depression and work with pet parents on how to help their cat. Cat behaviorists closely monitor any behavioral abnormalities. They observe your cat closely in their environment and then develop an appropriate treatment plan, sometimes in tandem with a vet.
Cats are often thought of as mysterious, but they communicate just as clearly as other pets do. If there’s a change in their normal behaviors, the root of the problem could be emotional. Knowing your cat and being able to pick up on the signals they give you is important, especially if you ever want to bring a second cat or other pet into your home.