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Cats are prone to many of the same mental health problems that humans suffer from, including depression. Sometimes, the signs that your cat is not happy can be very subtle. You may just think that your cat is being ‘grumpy’. But if your cat has become withdrawn and less sociable, it could be a sign of depression.
Keep reading to discover how to tell if your cat is depressed, and the most common symptoms of depression in cats.
Is my cat depressed?
Depression in cats often goes hand in hand with two other mental health problems suffered by cats – stress and anxiety. A variety of factors can trigger anxiety and stress in cats and these may vary from one cat to another. For example, a sudden change in routine, a stressful incident or a cat may develop chronic depression as a result of long-term stress.
Diagnosing a depressed cat can be difficult. However, your veterinarian can evaluate your cat and run tests to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
Signs and symptoms of depression in cats
During the initial onset of depression in cats, the signs may be quite subtle and can be easily missed. This is particularly true when a cat is depressed as a result of long-term stress, with a gradual onset of symptoms.
Obviously, our cats cannot tell us how they are feeling, so it is up to us to learn how to read their behaviour and body language. If your cat starts showing any of the signs listed below, depression may well be the cause:
Activity and sleep pattern changes
One of the most common signs of depression in cats is an increase in the time spent sleeping. Depression is characterised as a ‘loss of interest in life’, and your cat will no longer seek out activities that they used to enjoy. You may find that your cat has little interest in going outside or playing with toys.
Altered behaviour patterns
Cats with depression frequently become withdrawn, lethargic and less sociable and may seek out new places to hide. Other cats may appear more aggressive or irritable than usual which can result in defensive or reactive behaviour. They may become more vocal or meow excessively. Or, they may engage in destructive activities such as scratching the furniture or shredding the curtains.
Decrease in appetite or weight loss
Changes in appetite are also common in cats with depression. Your cat may lose interest in food and feel less motivated to eat. Or, they may develop irregular eating patterns only eating small amounts at a time or skipping meals entirely. If your cat’s depression causes a significant decrease in appetite, they will also start to lose weight.
Less commonly, some cats will overeat when depressed, just like humans who eat to comfort themselves during times of emotional distress.
Avoiding social interactions
Cats with depression, stress, or anxiety will have a decreased desire to play or interact with people. They may become grumpy and irritable, and will resent being stroked or groomed.
Lack of grooming or excessive grooming
Cats that are depressed will frequently reduce the time spent grooming, leading to a dirty, matted coat and sore skin. If their depression is a result of excessive stress, the opposite may occur, a cat may over-groom itself to provide a sense of comfort.
Urinating or defecating outside the litter box
Depression in cats can also lead to house soiling or increased frequency of urination in the litter box. Stress is a common cause of cystitis, so any changes in litter box habits should be investigated by your veterinarian.
It is important to keep in mind that many of these signs can also indicate other underlying problems. Cats hide symptoms of physical illness very well, so if you notice any subtle behavioural changes don’t ignore them. If in doubt, book your cat in at the clinic for a full health check.
What causes depression in cats?
We don’t fully understand depression in cats – we have no way of knowing if our cats feel sad, but they do appear to suffer from a lack of interest in activities they previously enjoyed. Some of the most common triggers of depression in cats include:
Physical health issue
If your cat is not able to carry out its usual behaviour due to illness or chronic pain, this may trigger an episode of anxiety or depression. For example, impaired eyesight may reduce your cat’s confidence to explore outside. And a lameness problem could prevent your cat from accessing its favourite sleeping spot.
Loss of a family member or pet
While it is not known if cats grieve for someone that has passed away or left the family home, they do appear to miss the physical presence of their favourite people or other pets. This can lead to a cat becoming withdrawn and depressed.
Moving to a new home
Moving home is not only stressful for humans – cats hate it too! This can be a frightening and stressful time for your cat and can trigger an episode of depression. Cats can also be sensitive to other changes in their environment including home renovations or even rearranging the furniture.
Significant change in schedule
Cats are creatures of habit, and any changes to their routine can be very stressful. If your cat’s routine is disrupted, e.g. by changes to your work schedule, this can result in separation anxiety which can lead to stress or destructive behaviour.
Sometimes there is no obvious reason for depression in cats, but it can occur as a result of prolonged stress and anxiety. This is particularly common in cats that are timid and easily bullied by other cats in the household.
How is depression in cats diagnosed?
If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, make sure you get your cat checked out by your veterinarian. Many of the symptoms of depression in cats are the same as signs of other health conditions which require medical treatment. For example:
- increased frequency of urination or urinary incontinence is common in cats with kidney disease
- reduced physical activity may be a sign of pain due to arthritis or other musculoskeletal problems.
When presented with a cat showing signs of depression, your veterinarian will need to rule out any underlying health problems first. As the symptoms of depression can be subtle, keeping a diary of your cat’s behaviour can help to highlight any unusual or changing habits.
A conclusive diagnosis of depression is normally based on the elimination of other health problems combined with a thorough evaluation of your cat’s behaviour and recent lifestyle changes.
Do indoor cats get depressed?
There is no evidence to suggest that indoor cats are any more prone to depression than outdoor cats. With any cat, indoor or outdoor, the key to preventing depression is making sure all their emotional and physical needs are met.
Treatment options for depression in cats
Currently, there are no pharmaceutical drugs approved for treating depression in cats. The treatments available for depression in cats are considered to be supportive rather than curative, easing the symptoms and helping your cat feel better.
Medications commonly used for humans, that are also used ‘off-label’ for cats in veterinary medicine include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – which increase the levels of serotonin in the brain, and help to improve mood and alleviate symptoms of depression. Examples of these include: fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Soloft).
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) – which work by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, which can help improve mood and reduce anxiety. Examples include amitriptyline and clomipramine.
Natural treatment alternatives
Many cats with depression also benefit from nutritional supplements that may have a positive effect on mood and behaviour:
- Omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oil have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and may improve brain function and mood in cats.
- B vitamins including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3) and folic acid (B9) are important for nervous system function. They may help improve mood and reduce stress in cats.
- Supplements such as l-theanine and l-tryptophan, increase serotonin levels in the brain and have a calming effect and may reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
- There has also been some promising research into the use of CBD (cannabidiol) for treating feline depression.
If your cat is depressed as a result of stress or anxiety, consider using a plug-in pheromone diffuser to create an environment that will help your cat relax.
How to help a cat with depression
The key to helping a cat with depression is to try to identify the root cause of the problem and find ways to help your cat overcome it. For example, depression as a result of chronic lameness will not be resolved until the pain has been addressed.
Establish a consistent routine
Cats that suffer from depression benefit from a regular and consistent routine which provides stability and security and helps them feel more in control. If possible, avoid any large lifestyle disruptions, or take steps to reduce the impact of these. If a big event is planned, such as a party, house guests or house move, restrict your cat to a quieter area of the house away from any disruption.
Encourage positive social interactions
Positive social interactions such as spending quality time with your cat, playing and giving them plenty of attention and affection can help boost their mood and provide mental stimulation. When your cat appears interested, encourage them to interact with you and try to instigate playtime activities. Keep any interactions calm and relaxed, and reward your cat for positive behaviour with treats or catnip.
Check out our easy to make recipe for homemade tuna & catnip treats – our cats love them!
The most important thing to remember when caring for a cat with depression is to never force them to interact with you if they don’t want to. Forcing a cat to do this will only increase the levels of stress and anxiety your cat is experiencing. Some cats will prefer to be alone during period of depression and choose not to interact with you or other pets in the house. It’s important to respect these boundaries and give your cat a safe and comfortable space where they can retreat and rest.
Reduce household stress
Take a look at your cat’s living conditions – is there anything you can change to reduce your cat’s stress and make them feel safer and more secure? If your cat feels threatened by other pets or household members, make sure your cat can access basic amenities (food, water, and litter box) and has a safe place to sleep.
As cat parents, it’s important to be aware of your cat’s behaviour and monitor them for signs of stress, anxiety or depression. If your cat seems depressed or has other behavioural issues it is important to consult with a veterinarian for guidance and support. With appropriate treatment and health care, most depressed cats can recover and continue to lead happy, healthy lives.