Is Cat Depression Real? Common Signs And Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As beloved as they may be, cats often have a reputation for being grumpy or tempestuous in nature. Aloofness, independence, or sleepiness may be natural traits of many cats. However, like humans, it's possible for cats to develop mental health conditions. As a result, some cat owners who have viewed a sudden change in their cats' behavior may wonder if their cat has a mental illness, like depression. Understanding animal mental health may help you maintain the health and safety of your furry family members.

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What is depression?

Depression is a mood disorder often encountered in humans, impacting over 280 million people worldwide. In people, depression is marked by mood and personality changes, chronic feelings of sadness or apathy, and loss of interest or motivation, among other symptoms. Although these are the most common symptoms in adult humans, pets, wild animals, and livestock can also experience depression. Like some humans, these symptoms may be preceded by an event that sets a chain of changes in motion.

Depression in felines: Symptoms and causes

Depression in companion animals like cats is somewhat like depression in humans in that it can cause changes in mood and personality. Feline depression may also go undetected before cat owners worry about the symptoms. Although the specific symptoms of cat depression depend on the personality and temperament of the animal in question, there are several commonalities, including the following. 

Communication changes 

Communication changes may occur in a cat living with depression. Suppose your cat is usually vocal or prone to loudly communicating that it wants to go outside, that it needs food, or wants affection. If you notice that your cat is no longer engaging in these vocal commands and requests, that can be a sign they are depressed.  Conversely, If your cat is quiet and reserved, it may suddenly grow loud and agitated, yowling constantly at your window or door to be let out (or in some cases, seemingly without cause.)

Bowel changes 

Cats who were once pristine litter box visitors may begin urinating or defecating outside of the litter box when depressed. These new behaviors may be noticeable, with cats relieving themselves in plain view on the carpet or floor. They could also be more subtle over longer periods of time, as cats may hide their indiscretions in houseplants, under blankets, or in bags or shoes.

Appetite changes 

If a cat is depressed, they may experience a loss of appetite, though some cats may exhibit more significant interest in food. If a cat that was previously a healthy eater suddenly begins leaving food uneaten or no longer drinks water, it could be a clear indicator of depression. These changes can also be symptomatic of physical illness. If your cat is not eating, ask your veterinarian about the next steps. 

Sleep changes 

Depressed cats might also exhibit changes in their standard sleeping patterns. Cats may suddenly begin sleeping more and in odd spaces. They may also appear to be on edge or seem to have dwindled their usual sleeping time. 

Personality changes 

Temperamental and antagonistic cats may demonstrate increasingly erratic and aggressive behavior, while previously calm and docile cats may begin to behave in more aggressive patterns. Although depression is often associated with sadness, depressed cats may also exhibit irritability. 

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What causes depression in felines? 

Many pet owners may wonder why their cat is experiencing depression. Cat depression does not often creep up gradually but may more often be related to an inciting event. Cats, like many animals, are sensitive creatures. Their happiness may be affected by stressors, routine changes, and scenery changes. The most likely causes of cat depression include the following. 

Loss 

Cats may become depressed if they lose a family member, whether that family member is a kitten, an older cat, a sibling, a parent, or an owner. Loss can cause severe depression or sadness in cats, which may be a period of grief or long-term concern. Veterinarians state that feline grieving can be normal and may occur similarly to human grief. 

Distressing lifestyle changes

Change can be difficult for animals and may cause depression in cats. Changes might not be significant, as a cat can become depressed due to a change in food, the removal of favorite toys, a relocated litter box, or the addition of other cats or pets in the home. Other changes that may incite depression could include moving, changes in their grooming regimen, a new baby in the house, or a dog moving in next door. 

Injury or illness 

Illness may be a trickier cause of cat depression, as many symptoms of cat depression mimic illness. For this reason, mood changes in animals should not be ignored. Be sure to consult your cat's vet to discuss your concerns and whether they are related to physical or mental health.

Lack of attention 

Although cats are known for not caring about attention and affection as their canine counterparts do, it may not be accurate. Like many domesticated animals, cats require affection and attention to function, and a lack of adequate attention can lead to feline depression. If your cat lives alone and you're constantly out at work or events, they may become depressed. Consider getting them a housemate or pet-sitter or spending more time with them. 

Breed differences 

Different cat breeds, ages, and temperaments can disproportionately respond to depression and other conditions. Talk to your vet to learn more about feline depression risk factors. 

Treating feline depression

Because the symptoms of depression in cats can mimic other conditions, take your cat to the vet if any symptoms of depression arise. The vet may be able to treat depression and evaluate your cat for any additional concerns. They may also prescribe medication (unless your veterinarian has a personal rule against doing so.)

Treating feline depression does differ from treating depression in humans. In humans, depression is treated through various methods, including lifestyle interventions, pharmaceutical medication, and psychotherapy. Because cats cannot verbally communicate their concerns or engage in therapy in the same way as humans, treatment for depression in cats focuses on eliminating potential comorbidities, improving the situation at home, and short-term medication. Although cats can experience depression following adverse experiences, they might not experience it as long as humans do, so medication or treatment may be short-term. 

Treating feline depression might also involve life changes on the owner's part. If the cat's depression has come on the heels of a change, such as a move, change in food, or change in their litter box location, the vet may suggest mitigating these changes as soon as possible. If, for instance, an owner wants to move a litter box from a bathroom to a laundry room, it may be better to make incremental changes to the location over an extended period rather than making a single, drastic change all at once. 

Symptoms of improvement

An indicator of a cat's improvement following treatment is the restoration of your cat's personality. If they once again come out of hiding, eat well, sleep well, and display affection, they might be feeling better. However, talk to your vet if you're still concerned. 

Depression in cats may come back if changes occur or the cat feels a sense of loss or fear. However, preventing cat depression may be possible. Try to ensure changes to routine are not abrupt or severe, keep close contact with the cat through daily playing and attention, and take steps to comfort a cat who has experienced the loss of an owner, friend, or family member. 

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Human treatment options 

Cats can be wonderful animals to take care of, but helping them through periods of depression can be stressful. If you're experiencing stress about your pet's well-being or think you might be exhibiting symptoms of depression yourself, you might consider seeking professional help from a therapist. You can also consider online counseling to spend more time at home with your cat. 

Working with a licensed mental health professional might seem like a counterintuitive solution for feline depression. Still, as your cat's human, you might be living with many challenging emotions yourself. Online therapy is an effective treatment method for various mental health conditions and can allow you to receive care at a fraction of the cost of in-person sessions.  

You can sign up for internet-based counseling through platforms like BetterHelp anytime. In addition, as you're attending therapy from home, you can have your cat in your lap or let them meet your therapist. Spending time at home with your pets may increase your treatment effectiveness and make you feel safer and more comfortable as you discuss potentially challenging subjects with your therapist. 

Takeaway

While many people don't know that depression can occur in cats, it may happen if your cat has experienced significant changes or physical health loss. If you suspect your cat may be experiencing depression, determine what symptoms they have and present those symptoms to a veterinarian. You’ll also want to have the cat evaluated for physical health concerns. Depression in animals may not be as understood as depression in humans and could be a symptom of a physical ailment rather than a condition of its own. Treat your cat with love, affection, and care to prevent and treat depression. In addition, if you're experiencing signs of depression yourself, consider reaching out to a therapist for further guidance and support.
Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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