How can I tell if my cat is depressed?

Learn the signs of depression in cats, and how to help your kitty get out of a funk.

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

gray tabby cat lying on white surface
Photo by Inge Wallumrød on

Depression is a tricky diagnosis for humans. So, it’s no surprise that veterinarians have a difficult time diagnosing this condition in our feline friends. Cats are naturally independent animals who only tolerate being around others when they feel it’s in their best interest.

When a cat is sick or injured, he’ll likely need his family to provide food, water and carefully monitor his recovery. But if your healthy cat suddenly becomes isolated, changes her eating habits or seems withdrawn from the world around her, you may have cause for concern.

But sometimes, a new and enticing toy does wonders by inspiring interaction and all important play…

“Most of the time it’s not possible to determine the cause of a cat’s depression,” says Dr. Jane Brunt, chief executive officer and medical director at CATalyst Council, the organization which created the first national standards for humane treatment of cats in veterinary practices.

Signs of Depression in Cats

“A cat can’t tell you why he doesn’t want to eat or go outside anymore – so it’s up to us to step in and try to figure out what’s causing their behavior.”

Here are some of the most common signs that may indicate your cat is depressed:

  • Isolating himself from social contact (with other cats or with humans)
  • Staying by himself for long periods, possibly hiding under the bed or couch
  • Loss of appetite; not wanting to eat
  • Poor grooming habits (or lack of grooming at all)
  • Less interaction with family members and/or other pets
  • Decreased interest in playtime, toys or treats

Veterinarians often treat a cat who’s depressed by prescribing anti-anxiety medications that can help restore appetite and give the pet a burst of energy. But there may be better, less expensive interventions — like playing with your cat or creating new, interesting conditions in the home you share. If you have some spare fabric around or even an old sheet, creating a tented area by hanging it over chairs and/or tables and furniture, makes a cat wonderland.

This simple inexpensive toy keeps one of our cats going for lengthy periods (for a cat.)

My wife and I find spreading some paper, any paper on the floor, for example, will inspire a sluggish, bored or sad cat.

But since the cause of cat depression or sadness is the loss of a beloved companion, bringing home a new cat can be magic. Who doesn’t want to see a member or their own species every day?

“It’s important to remember that many cats are very sensitive, so it’s extremely dangerous to give any medications without your vet’s input,” says Brunt.

“All too often well-meaning cat owners treat their pet with an over-the-counter or prescription medication meant for humans. If they do this, the results can be deadly.”

Dos and Don’ts

Other ways to treat depression in cats include making sure they get plenty of exercise, offering them affectionate pats and giving them natural playthings like feathers on the end of a string. Brunt also recommends changing litter boxes often so that your cat isn’t smelling his own waste, which might make him depressed too.

Of course, some medications are safe for cats, so it’s always a good idea to talk with your vet to find out if the problem could be related to an underlying medical condition.

“In cases where there isn’t a physical cause for the behavior, I’ve had some success using antidepressant homeopathic treatments,” says Brunt. “Most of these medications come in a cat-specific formula, so it’s important to go with a product that’s been proven safe and effective.”

In addition, Brunt says that maintaining strong family ties can be very helpful in treating cats who are depressed. “Cats don’t thrive on having a lot of human attention, but it is important to show them affection and offer them little ‘treats’ now and then,” she explains.

“Finding ways for your cat to have fun with the family-like batting a spring-loaded toy mouse around or letting him chase after a laser pointer – can help keep his mind active.” The bottom line is that if your cat is suddenly acting depressed despite showing no underlying medical problems, there is a chance that something in his life is making him unhappy and you’ll need to find out what it is for him to get better.

“We often treat cats who are depressed because we don’t want the pet’s quality of life to suffer,” says Brunt. “If you can build up their confidence and give them a reason to enjoy life again, they have every chance of getting better.”

Conclusion: Depression in Cats

Cats can be just as moody and prone to depression as humans. They also experience feelings of elation, anxiety, sadness, anger and frustration. That’s why cat owners need to learn the signs so they can help their furry friends out when needed. How have you helped your cat get back into good spirits?

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