As any cat parent can tell you, our feline family members are hardly lacking in intelligence or emotional complexity, so of course they can get depressed when life gets stressful.
Recognizing feline depression can be incredibly challenging. Cats can’t tell us when they’re feeling down. But if you’re noticing things like appetite changes, social withdrawal, or decreased playfulness, depression might be a factor.
Here’s the good news: The causes of feline depression are often fairly straightforward. If you find out what’s getting your kitty down and take steps to help, you may get them perked up and chasing that laser pointer in no time.
Signs of Cat Depression
To offer your feline friend the support they’ll need, first you’ll need to recognize the signs that they’re depressed. Here are some very common indicators:
When a cat gets depressed, their behavior is very likely to change. Spotting those shifts can offer some valuable insights into their emotional state.
Playful No More
Every cat is different, and some are calm and solitary by nature. But if your once-playful cat suddenly loses interest in their favorite activities, that could be a sign of depression. A depressed cat might ignore toys they used to love, become less interested in interacting with you, or spend more time resting.
Always keep an eye on this kind of behavior. But remember, cats can go through periods of reduced activity for any number of reasons. If this only lasts for a day or two, there might not be anything to worry about.
Changes in Appetite
Depression can significantly affect a cat's eating habits, but the specifics can vary. Some depressed cats may eat less, which can lead to weight loss. On the flip side, other melancholy kitties might actually eat too much, leading to feline weight gain.
So take note of any significant fluctuations. But remember, depression is hardly the only thing that can drive a sudden shift in eating habits. If your cat's appetite changes, you’d be well-advised to consult a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical causes, such as dental problems, gastrointestinal disorders, or parasitic infections.
Physical Symptoms of Depression in Cats
It’s not just about your cat’s behavior. Depression can affect your cat physically, altering their appearance and their overall health.
We’ve kind of already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Weight changes are among the most obvious physical signs of depression. Whether your cat has abruptly shriveled away or packed on the pounds, depression might be to blame.
Mentally healthy cats tend to be positively zealous about self-care. But depressed kitties may neglect grooming altogether, resulting in a disheveled appearance. On the other hand, depression can also cause cats to OVERgroom, leading to hair loss, skin irritations, or even bald patches. Any noticeable shifts in grooming behavior should swiftly prompt a visit to the veterinarian, especially if these changes persist for more than a few days. Your vet may suspect depression, or they may diagnose an unknown illness as the cause of your cat’s grooming woes.
Many More Meows
Cats communicate through a variety of vocalization patterns, and a significant increase in meowing is often a sign of depression. Your cat may be seeking attention, expressing discomfort, or simply vocalizing their unhappiness.
And quality matters just as much as quantity. Depressed cats may produce unusual sounds, such as whining or yowling. These vocalizations may occur even more frequently if your cat also feels lonely or anxious.
Again, it’s crucial to keep in mind that many symptoms of depression can also be associated with various medical conditions. If you’re noticing any of these signs, it’s always wise to consult your vet.
Causes of Cat Depression
However many symptoms you observe, it’s tough to diagnose depression solely based on behavioral or even physical signs. However, if such symptoms develop in conjunction with certain stressful life events or medical conditions, depression becomes more likely.
Changes in Your Cat’s Environment
Environmental changes and stressors can have a major impact on your cat's emotional health. For instance:
Changes in Routine
Cats are creatures of habit, and abrupt changes to their daily routine can lead to anxiety and depression. Major stressors include modifications in feeding times, a shift in the household’s daily schedule, a recent move, or even renovations in the home. To mitigate the impact of routine changes, you should try your hardest to make adjustments gradually.
Loss of a Companion
Cats form strong emotional bonds with the people and animals in the household. The loss of a companion animal—whether it's a human, dog, or fellow cat—can cause grief, loneliness, and confusion. Providing your cat with extra attention, comfort, and a stable routine can help them navigate a challenging period of adjustment.
Stressful Living Conditions
Overcrowding, conflicts with other pets or small children, or exposure to loud noises can all lead to stress and depression.
Changes in Social Dynamics
Cats can struggle with both losses and introductions. They’ll often feel blue if a person or pet they’re used to isn’t around anymore, whether that’s because of a death or a move. But they can also get depressed and anxious when someone new moves in, even if that someone is a new baby.
It’s crucial to create a pleasant home environment for your cat. Maybe that means providing quiet retreats, addressing conflicts, providing extra love, or making sure that new introductions happen gradually. A calm, stable homestead can work wonders for a depressed feline.
Certain medical conditions have symptoms that can easily be mistaken for signs of depression (think: weight changes). At the same time, illnesses and injuries can CAUSE depression.
Here are some of the main culprits:
Chronic Pain or Discomfort
Untreated pain or discomfort is a very common cause of depression in cats. And unfortunately, a vast number of health conditions can cause these issues. Physical suffering can stem from conditions like arthritis, dental issues, orthopedic problems, undiagnosed injuries, and so much more. When cats suffer from chronic pain, they’re highly likely to exhibit depressive behaviors like reduced activity, avoiding physical interaction, and appetite changes.
Conditions like hyperthyroidism or reproductive issues can have a profound impact on a cat's mood and behavior. Hormonal changes can lead to increased irritability, restlessness, and, in some cases, depressive symptoms.
Again, it’s important to see a vet if you notice any symptoms of depression or illness (or both). And if your cat is both sick AND sad, addressing the former is very likely to help with the latter.
How to Help a Depressed Cat
If you think your furry friend is suffering from depression, you need to take proactive steps to help. Here are some strategies to help your cat recover:
Take Them to the Vet
We know this isn’t the first (or second, or third) time we’ve advised you to see your vet, but it’s monumentally important, so we’ll say it again:
If you think your cat is depressed, you should visit their veterinarian ASAP.
Your vet will conduct a thorough examination to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your cat’s symptoms. With a clear diagnosis, your vet can set up an appropriate treatment plan. And when a health condition is eradicated, depression has a way of following suit.
Provide Environmental Enrichment
Feline boredom often goes hand in hand with depression. That’s why it’s so important to enrich your cat's environment with stimulating activities and playthings. Interactive toys, puzzle feeders, and scratching posts can engage your cat physically and mentally.
Toys like feather wands and laser pointers can encourage physical activity and mental engagement. And cat exercise surfaces like a cat tree or shelves can provide an outlet for their energy. Meanwhile, well-maintained litter stations can contribute to a clean and pleasant home.
You should also make sure they have access to a safe space. This can be a cozy corner with a comfortable bed or a secluded hideaway they can retreat to. Creating a secure sanctuary lets your cat decompress and regain a sense of control. This can be especially helpful if your cat’s depression is due to household changes like redecorating, a move, or new family members.
Offer Social Interaction
Your cat might just be lonely, especially if a member of your household is no longer there. Gentle bonding activities can be highly therapeutic for them. Spend quality time petting them and playing with them. And talk to them! (It’s fine to use a baby voice; in fact, we encourage it.) Making your cat feel loved and secure can dramatically boost their mental health. And if your time is limited, you might consider introducing them to a new furry friend.
At the same time, let’s acknowledge that more playtime or companionship can’t always solve the social puzzle. In fact, some cats get depressed because they’re overwhelmed by social situations, like the introduction of a new pet or family member.
In those cases, try to take a gradual approach. For one thing, you can try letting your cat become familiar with the scent of the new pet (or person) before having them meet face-to-face. Letting them sniff some bedding or an old shirt might do the trick. Use treats and praise to encourage the new association. And again, make sure they have access to a safe, solitary space.
Oversee Your Cat’s Diet
Improper nutrition can severely affect your cat’s mood and overall well-being. Make sure your cat is eating a balanced and nutritious diet that meets their specific needs. Consult with your veterinarian to select the most suitable cat food, keeping factors like age, activity level, and underlying health issues in mind.
Consider Supplements and Medications
In some cases, your vet might recommend vitamins and supplements made for cats. Admittedly, there isn’t a huge amount of research supporting the premise that supplements can help cats with depression. However, there is some data indicating that supplements containing L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid, can aid in mood regulation when paired with another anti-anxiety medication.
In an extreme situation, your veterinarian might also prescribe antidepressants for your cat. Fluoxetine (also known as Prozac) is a particularly common choice for vets.
The Bottom Line
Supporting a depressed cat requires a patient and tailored approach. By addressing their emotional needs through professional evaluation, environmental enrichment, social interaction, and proper nutrition, there’s a good chance you can help your feline friend perk up.
In the meantime, getting your cat insured might help you take care of them. While cat insurance doesn’t cover behavioral treatments, it can help ease the financial burden of treating accidents or injuries. And if your kitty is experiencing depression or other behavioral issues, the problem might well be medical. Just make sure your pet is insured when they’re still young, so their conditions won’t become pre-existing.