Often the First Sign Your Cat Is Sick, Please Don't Ignore It

cat depression

Story at-a-glance -

  • A kitty can appear depressed, but there’s probably something going on in her life, either physically or environmentally, that’s creating stress versus actual depression
  • If your cat’s behavior changes, which is often the first sign of a health problem, your first stop should be your veterinarian’s office to check for an underlying medical condition
  • In healthy cats, depression is often caused by stressors in their environment that need to be addressed
  • Areas of stress for indoor cats tend to be diet-related, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or somatic

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Cats can be moody little creatures, and much of what they're thinking and feeling is a mystery. Many kitties also seem to change moods in the blink of an eye. For example, one minute little Tiger is purring contentedly on your lap as you pet him, and then in a flash he turns on you, hissing and growling.

Because most of us operate exclusively from our own frame of reference, we tend to label cats' behavior with the words we use to describe human emotions and behavior. For example, many pet parents believe their cat "pouts," or has "temper tantrums," or is "hyperactive."

The truth is there are probably few, if any similarities between the motivations behind cat behavior and human behavior, but because cats are so enigmatic and can't tell us what they're feeling, we identify their behavior based on our personal experiences as human beings.

Do Cats Get Depressed?

A mood many pet parents often attribute to their cats is depression. However, as far as anyone knows, kitties don't suffer from depression as we understand the disorder. In humans, depression can be temporary, triggered by a sad or stressful situation. It can also have a medical cause. But the only way doctors and therapists can diagnose depression is through symptoms as described by their patients.

Cat parents and veterinarians are at an obvious disadvantage here, because we can't simply ask kitty what she's feeling. We have to rely on observations of her behavior to determine if something is bothering her.

Cats who are stressed (which is probably a more appropriate term than depressed) tend to display a variety of behaviors such as eating less, hiding more, and hissing or growling or otherwise saying, "Keep your distance!" There can also be litterbox avoidance issues, and disturbed sleep patterns.

But if you've spent any time around cats, you know these same behavioral signs are present in a long list of feline disorders and diseases, and you also know that the first sign (and often the only sign) a kitty is sick is a change in behavior. So the first stop you should make if your feline family member's behavior has changed is your veterinarian's office.

Pain can be difficult to detect in cats and is prevalent in senior and geriatric kitties, and a painful condition can cause even the most stoic pet to appear depressed. A good rule of thumb if your kitty's behavior changes, is to assume the problem is physical and not simply moodiness.

In the vast majority of cases, there's an underlying medical condition that must be addressed, and the sooner your veterinarian orders the proper tests and gets treatment underway, the sooner your kitty will feel better. If your depressed cat receives a clean bill of health from your vet and/or she's been treated successfully for an underlying medical issue but her behavior is still "off," the next step is to take a look at potential stressors in her environment.

5 Areas of Focus to Reduce Your Cat's Stress

The opposite of being stressed is being relaxed, which is why stress management techniques involve pursuits that promote relaxation. For humans, this usually involves an activity — meditating, taking a yoga class, doing deep breathing exercises, using guided imagery, engaging in physical exercise, etc.

However, for cats it's a bit different. They need an environment ideally adapted for a feline in order to enjoy a comfortable, serene lifestyle. What you want to do for your kitty is think about how she experiences her living situation through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

1. Reducing diet-related stress. The appropriate food for cats, who are obligate carnivores, is a moisture-dense, unadulterated, nutritionally balanced fresh diet comprised primarily of human-grade (preferably organically raised) animal meat, high-quality animal fat, and a small amount of vegetables and fruits.

The veggies and fruits provide antioxidants and fiber to animals that no longer hunt whole prey. In addition, natural sources of trace minerals, vitamins and fatty acids must be added, since the soils in which foods are grown are depleted of many of the nutrients pets need.

Feeding a diet specifically designed for your carnivorous cat is the best way to prevent nutritionally related stress. Older kitties often need even higher levels of protein than youngsters to prevent a decline in lean body mass as they age. Offer your cat fluoride- and chlorine-free, fresh, filtered water from glass or stainless steel bowls.

Keeping up with your cat's dental health is also very important in preventing diet-related stress, as is hairball control. I also recommend consulting your integrative veterinarian about beneficial dietary supplements, like digestive enzymes. Ensuring your cat gets some daily exercise will help with GI motility, as will regular massages.

2. Reducing visual stress. Your kitty appreciates variety in the lighting in his environment. Sometimes he wants to sit in the sunshine (I recommend opening your drapes daily to allow in natural light for your cats). Other times he prefers a dark (WiFi-free) spot to nap or hide out in.

Giving cats a break from unnatural or fluorescent lighting is very important. Build variety into the lighting your cat is exposed to with items like boxes, play tunnels, perches in different spots, closet shelving — even an empty cabinet he can safely access.

Boredom also causes stress, so you might want to consider kitty videos or a window perch where your cat can relax and keep an eye on neighborhood happenings or the bird feeder in your backyard. Also engage in daily exercise/pay sessions with your cat.

3. Reducing auditory stress. Studies show that music modulates both cardiac and neurologic function, reducing stress levels. Slow classical music seems to relax most animals. And although many people like to have the TV or radio on continuously around the house, it's important to give your cat the opportunity to experience quiet somewhere in the house.

Loud music, the noise of much of today's TV programming and arguments between humans in the home elevate stress levels and promote a systemic inflammatory response.

4. Reducing olfactory stress. Some smells that can cause stress for your kitty include cigarette smoke, chemical cleaning products, cologne, air fresheners and scented candles. Off-gassing from new carpet, furniture and upholstery can also negative affect cats.

Air quality is critically important for cats, so change home air filters regularly. They're also sensitive to airborne pollutants, including mold spores. Keeping the air in your home purified reduces respiratory stress. Kitties are known to respond well to certain aromas, including fresh air, catnip, lavender, chamomile flowers, valerian root and pheromones.

Experiment with a variety of these scents and see which ones your cat seems to like. If you discover she has a particular favorite, consider safely adding the scent to an area of your home your kitty hangs out in. Putting a small amount of these dried herbs out to naturally diffuse their scent into a room is a safe choice for cats.

Catnip can be purchased in a variety of forms — there are catnip toys, mists, flakes and pellets you can sprinkle around your home, and other catnip kitty accessories. Look for organic options. Also provide a PBDE-free, organic cat bed to lounge on. Most pet beds are sprayed with flame retardants that have been linked to endocrine issues in cats.  

If you've moved into a new home or have painted, installed new carpeting, or added new furniture or upholstery, you can reduce chemical off-gassing by using a room air purifier to reduce airborne chemicals.

5. Reducing somatic stress. Speaking of kitty massage, it's also a good way to reduce all kinds of stress-related symptoms like anxiety, pain and depression. Petting, cuddling and brushing your cat, as long as she's willing, will not only reduce her stress level but will strengthen the bond you share with her. Acupuncture and chiropractic can also relieve stress and support healthy immune function.

I have also had good success managing stress in kitties with Solutions flower essences. I also suggest using Feliway pheromone spray and homeopathic remedies for specific symptoms.

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