Cat Depression: 11 Subtle Signs Your Cat Is Depressed
Is your aloof, fickle feline just being a cat—or could it have cat depression? Here's how to tell.
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The top signs of cat depression
Can cats cry? Not exactly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel sad. Cat depression isn’t exactly the same as the human mental health condition, but kitties can certainly show signs of distress that indicate sadness, fear, cat anxiety, or that you have an angry cat, says Dawn Kavanaugh, cat behaviorist and CEO of All About Animals Rescue.
Often cats appear more temperamental or emotional than dogs, and it doesn’t take much for them to become dysregulated. Some of the most common reasons for a cat to become depressed include:
- Lack of nutritious food and clean water
- A move to a new place or significant changes to their home
- Lack of a quiet, safe living space
- Little mental or physical stimulation
- Physical illness or pain
- Being abandoned
“These are obvious and easily quantifiable items, but each kitty is different, so pay close attention to what your cat is trying to tell you,” she says.
The best way to avoid cat depression, or to help a dysregulated kitty, is to learn about normal cat behavior and let your cat be a cat, Kavanaugh adds. To help you do just that, we asked cat behavior experts to share the top signs of cat depression that all pet owners should know.
Swishing and twitching its tail
An upset cat has a major tell: its wagging tail. A happy kitty’s tail moves like a soft feather duster, but a sad or depressed cat may issue quick, hard strikes with its tail, says Danielle Bernal, DVM, a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food. Do a little investigating to find the source of their discomfort. “Cats are creatures of habit and do not like change, so start by addressing any recent changes,” she says. Need more help decoding your kitty’s wishes?
Suddenly becoming needy
Cats are known for being aloof, independent, and moody, but in reality, every animal has its own personality—some cats are cranky, others are cuddly, and others like their humans to know who’s boss (them). If that changes, it’s cause for concern and may indicate feline depression, Dr. Bernal says.
“Many cat owners talk about how their cat curls up in their lap, smooches them in the morning, and is the perfect companion,” she says. “Should this suddenly change, then don’t put it down to the fact she is just being a cat. It may be the first sign that they are depressed.”
Swiping and scratching at your hand
Ah, the ol’ scratch-n-swipe, used by cats everywhere to show their displeasure with what’s happening! “When your feline friend resorts to the claws coming out and a quick swipe in frustration, you will know its mood is going down,” Dr. Bernal says.
It doesn’t mean your cat is innately cranky or chronically depressed, but it indicates your little friend is having a tough moment. Handle it like you would a sad child. “Nothing makes a cat calm down more than time with you,” she says. And don’t automatically entertain the idea of cat declawing—that’s the last resort, not the first solution.
Climbing the walls
Unlike their human counterparts, cats literally go off the wall (and on) when they’re upset. This bad behavior, particularly when they have been properly trained to follow your house rules, can be one of the signs of a depressed cat. Their bad mood might be stemming from boredom, so make sure you’re providing plenty of stimulation for a depressed cat (or any cat, for that matter), Dr. Bernal says.
“Make sure your home looks like a cat lives there—cat toys, climbing trees, cozy beds, and scratching posts,” she says. “It lets the cat have its own space and feel like part of the household, and having its things to snooze in or play with will do just that.”
Pining away at the window
When you’re gone, your cat misses you, plain and simple—and that can turn into depression if you’re gone a lot. It is a common misconception that cats are indifferent to humans; in fact, they want to bond with their owners and be included as a member of the family, says Brian Ogle, PhD, associate professor of anthrozoology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Case in point: Your cat may rub against you as a sign of affection or a way to say “mine.”
Many times, humans do not interact enough with their cats because of this misconception, Ogle says. You can change that, at least in your house. Engage in active play on a regular basis to solidify the bond between human and cat (and make both of you feel warm and fuzzy inside).
Pooping in strange places
If your kitty is defecating in places other than its litter box, it can be a sign of an underlying medical issue, a situational problem, or cat depression. It’s vitally important that you react in a positive way (even if that’s the last thing you feel when you step on a fresh pile of cat feces), Ogle says. “Because they are solitary animals, they lack the cognitive capability to interpret subtle social cues or to connect negative punishment to their specific action,” he says. Instead, use positive reinforcement to help a depressed cat and make sure its litter box is clean and easily accessible.
Ignoring loved ones
Unlike sleeping too much, avoiding people isn’t necessarily a sign of cat depression. But turning away from you or ignoring you can be, says cat behavior specialist Kelly Hayes-Raitt. “When my cat didn’t like the man I was dating, he’d sit in a corner and face the wall, refusing to even look at me,” she says, adding it was a clear sign he was unhappy. Her solution: Don’t force interaction—a depressed cat will come around to new people when it’s good and ready.
Hissing and spitting
The stereotypical signs of a mad cat—hissing, spitting, arching the back, drawing the claws—aren’t so much signs of anger as they are a cat’s way of saying it’s generally upset. Faced with these behaviors, you might not jump to the question, Does my cat have depression? But you should at least consider it.
“To deal with this behavior, I ignore the cat until she gets used to me and can see I’m not a threat,” Kavanaugh says. “I leave her alone in her sleeping area and after a bit, she will usually warm up to me and refrain from hissing.”
Turning your furniture into a scratching post
If your cat isn’t normally a destroyer of furniture but has recently started shredding your drapes, it could be stressed out, which may look like cat depression to worried human owners, says animal communication expert Karen Miura. She recommends using a cat pheromone diffuser or spray to calm down your pet naturally.
And, you know, maybe take some steps to prevent your cat from scratching the furniture in the future.
Nils Jacobi/Getty Images
Spraying your walls
Cats are very territorial and see your house and yard as their kingdom, so when someone “invades” their space, it can tank their mood, Miura says. “Things like claw marks on furniture and urine spray on walls are simply fresh boundary lines your cat sets when it feels like its territory was threatened by an intruder,” she explains. “The intruder could be anything from a mouse in the cupboard to a change in routine.”
If removing the intrusion isn’t an option (you aren’t about to kick out your new baby, for instance), try to keep as many things constant for your depressed cat as possible. But there’s one habit you will want to change: Don’t let your cat sleep on your bed.
“Crying” for no apparent reason
Your furry friend might not speak English, but cats do use vocalizations to express their feelings. The sounds of cat sadness might not be the blue mews you’d expect. Any excessive meowing can be a sign that a cat is lonely, stressed, or needs attention for other health reasons. If your kitty seems down, leave more toys to keep it happy when you’re away, and give it extra cuddles when you can.
How to help a depressed cat
When it comes to kitties, the question isn’t “can cats get depressed?” so much as “is there anything I can do to help?” Thankfully, the answer is yes. Sad, angry, depressed, or otherwise dysregulated cats need two things from you, says Kavanaugh: trust and unconditional love.
“Your cat needs to trust you to be the constant in its life. Everything starts from that base of trust,” she says. Here are five things she recommends you do to build trust and show your love:
- Provide nutritious food and clean water.
- Seek out regular, quality vet care—especially when your cat is showing signs of distress.
- Give it a safe, enclosed environment to sleep and live in.
- Create an enriching environment with lots of variety.
- Do not abandon them.
When it comes to showing love, most cats’ love language is physical touch. “Every cat is different, but you know yours best,” she says. Most appreciate scratches on the chin and ears, but do what you know your cat enjoys. The best part is that they’ll give you all that love back—and more.
- Dawn Kavanaugh, cat behaviorist and CEO of All About Animals Rescue
- Danielle Bernal, DVM, a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food
- Brian Ogle, PhD, associate professor of anthrozoology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida
- Kelly Hayes-Raitt, cat behavior specialist
- Karen Miura, animal communication expert