The sad cat – do cats really get depressed?


Cats do experience emotions, but studying and measuring their emotion is challenging. It’s sometimes hard for us not to treat our cats as little humans, but while they feel emotion, it may not be in the same way as we do.

Our modern domestic cat (Felis catus) is thought to have arisen from wildcats living closely with humans thousands of years ago. Cats have not undergone major changes during domestication, unlike dogs, so behave similarly to their solitary wildcat ancestors and remain perfectly capable of surviving in the wild.

Does my cat feel sadness?

Sadness in human terms is a temporary emotion that passes, while depression is defined as:

“…causing people to experience depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.”

Basic emotions such as fear and anger in cats are probably linked to survival, and acted on quickly due to the evolutionary purpose behind it. Emotions such as sadness or jealousy are more complex and may be felt by cats differently.

A large body of evidence surrounds the existence, causes and signs of chronic stress in cats. There are similarities in the signs cats with chronic stress show to humans suffering depression, and in humans chronic stress leads to depression. Although the evidence is lacking, it’s reasonable to suggest that if cats can suffer stress they may also suffer a form of sadness, and even depression.

How does my cat show emotion?

Humans evolved to show emotion through facial expressions but cats’ flat faces are less dextrous. They show emotion through body language, ear position and behaviour. Fear may manifest in hiding, hissing or scratching. A happy cat may purr or knead your lap. All these emotions are hard to quantify, as is sadness.

What signs may my cat show with stress?

Sudden, temporary stress is easier to recognise. Open and alert eyes, wide pupils, flattened ears, and a crouched and motionless body may alert you. They may even hiss, growl or be aggressive if approached.

Signs of chronic stress are more subtle but can have a huge impact on welfare and affect patterns of behaviour, as depression does in humans. Cats may:

  • eat less, or more.
  • groom less, leading to an unkempt appearance. They may over-groom resulting in bald patches.
  • appear to sleep more, but actually just be resting, not fully relaxed.
  • become withdrawn, hiding away more.
  • show aggression towards people or other pets.
  • choose to urinate or defecate in inappropriate places.
  • suffer from a stress related urinary condition known as feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC, also known as FLUTD).
  • not display their normal hunting/play behaviour.
  • change routine, spending more time indoors or outdoors.

Why might my cat be stressed?

What stresses a cat many not stress a human, and vice versa. We must start thinking ‘cat’ not ‘human’, remembering that although tamed, the cat has never been truly domesticated. Cats are individuals and enduring an unpleasant situation may stress some more than others.

If environmental needs are not met, chronic stress often follows.

If there is more than one cat in a household, they need separate resources. Consider the following as resources: food bowl, water source, litter tray, bed, hiding place, high perch and toys. Cats may share resources, but often because they don’t have a choice. This situation may be stressful as it may risk conflict.

A good formula is to have one resource per cat plus one. Resources need to be separated, so two food bowls sat together is NOT two feeding stations. Litter trays, as well as being placed apart, should be in a low traffic area so they feel safe and secure. Many cats don’t like the taste of water from plastic bowls so ceramic, stainless steel or glass, is best. Many prefer running water, so consider a water fountain.

For outdoor cats, timings of excursions should be up to the cat not you. If your cat shares their territory then they can pick a time to avoid other cats and conflict. Cats prefer routine and predictability which makes them feel safe. Being predictable helps reduce stress. Indoor cats need an environment that allows them to be challenged, to climb and play.

Companionship is another area that can cause stress.

Cats are naturally quite solitary. Carefully consider having more than one cat, especially if the local area has a significant cat population. Many cats enjoy social interactions, but differ in the amount they want and when. Timid cats may find overzealous cuddling more stressful than bold cats. It’s best for most cats if they are the ones who initiate interaction, so they are in control.

Cats need to exhibit natural behaviours such as playing and hunting. If they don’t have the space, environment and opportunity to do this, it can cause stress.

It’s unrealistic to expect a stress-free life for your cat but appreciating triggers and limiting them reduces the likelihood of problems developing as a result of chronic stress.

Pheromone sprays and diffusers can have a calming effect on many cats and can be used alongside environmental changes. They work through spreading a ‘happy’ pheromone, providing reassurance to your cat.

Could chronic pain cause sadness or depression?

Chronic pain may be a source of sadness for any animal. Our domestic cats’ solitary ancestors had no pack protection. It makes evolutionary sense to hide pain well so cats became masters at it, showing only subtle signs that are easy to miss.

There are many causes for chronic pain. In older cats, arthritis may be one of the most commonly undiagnosed causes of chronic pain. One study showed that 90% of cats over the age of 12 had X-ray evidence of arthritis. Cats with chronic pain may show symptoms similar to those with stress.

If you think your cat might be experiencing chronic pain or stress, please arrange for them to be checked over by your local vet who can offer therapies, medications or advice to help keep your cat happy and comfortable.

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3 thoughts on “The sad cat – do cats really get depressed?

  1. Thank you for this helpful article. As a long time cat owner I am aware that it takes time to understand the widely differing cat personalities and to read the signs that something is not quite “normal” in their individual behaviour!

  2. My cat either has separation anxiety or feels depressed when I’m not around to play with him. He’ll pee on the couch sometimes where I usually sit when I’m home. My feelings on the matter bounce back and forth from thinking it’s cute to being peeved about it.

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