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Cat Sadness: Causes, Symptoms and How to Help

Cat looking out window very sadly
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Cats may not weep, listen to sad songs on repeat, or polish off pints of ice cream – but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel sadness.

It’s common for cats to appear sorrowful, dejected, or forlorn in response to their experiences and changes in their environment. Since cats can’t talk about their feelings, you may be wondering, “Is my cat sad?”

Do Cats Get Sad?

Cat snuggled in blanket

Pet parents tend to attribute human characteristics to their pets. You might describe your cat as friendly and spontaneous or standoffish and lazy; the same tendency applies to emotion.

Even though it’s impossible to know for certain whether cats experience sadness, it appears likely. 

“We surmise that cats can feel sadness,” says Dr. Bruce Kornreich, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center. 

It’s also unclear whether there’s a biological reason for sadness and depression in cats. Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, believes that the cause might be different in cats than in humans.

“Most likely, depression in cats may have less to do with serotonin, which is our ‘happy’  hormone, and more to do with cortisol released by stress,” he explains. “An increase in cortisol can lead to all sorts of physical changes.” 

What Causes Cat Sadness?

Cat head over edge of couch

There are a number of factors that could put your feline friend in a funk, from moving to a new home to the addition of a new pet. Cats can also react to loss, notes Weitzman.

“Cats create strong bonds with their loved ones and they certainly experience that loss, sometimes leading to stress, unhappiness, and depression,” he says.

Stress might also be to blame. Weitzman believes that some of the behaviors that cat owners interpret as grief might be stress-related. 

“Cats are creatures of habit and don’t appreciate change if they are happy with their current situation,” Weitzman says. “The longer a cat feels stressed, the more likely they are to become depressed.”

Some illnesses – including feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), diabetes, kidney disease, and dental disease – can cause lethargy, loss of appetite, and a feeling of overall melancholy. Sedative medications and chemotherapy can cause similar symptoms that may be perceived as sadness.

“If you notice signs, visit the vet to make sure there’s not a health problem causing the symptoms,” says Kornreich.

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Sad

Cat laying on floor of house

Cat sadness can be difficult to detect. Some cats will sleep more often or lose interest in their favorite activities, while others will have decreased appetites. For this reason, Weitzman notes that it’s important to know what’s normal for your cat, and to be on the lookout for changes to their behavior.

Common signs of sadness in cats include:

  • Increased sleep
  • Low energy levels 
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Changes in grooming behaviors
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increase in litter box accidents
  • More vocalization
  • Hissing, biting, growling or other aggressive behaviors

Diagnosing Cat Depression

Cat visits the vet

Sadness that lingers (and becomes chronic) might be diagnosed as depression.

There is no blood test or scan to diagnose sadness or depression in cats. Instead, veterinarians will rule out potential physical causes for the symptoms and rely on information from owners about behavior changes that could signal depression.

“If your cat starts acting differently, be extra attentive to identify those behaviors and consult your veterinarian,” says Weitzman. “The first thing you want to do is rule out an illness, injury, or pain. If your vet gives your cat a clean bill of health, start looking for lifestyle changes or environmental factors.”

Cat Depression Treatment

Cat taking a pill

To help your cat overcome depression, start with enrichment.

Providing new cat toys and games, installing a new window perch or cat tree, or building a “catio” can provide stimulation to help alleviate sadness. Remember to dedicate time to play and grooming, too, because bonding activities can decrease stress and allow your cat to rediscover happiness.

Weitzman suggests over-the-counter remedies like Feliway, a synthetic cat pheromone that gives your cat reassuring scent messages, or Zylkene, a food supplement derived from milk protein that has a natural anti-anxiety effect. 

If your cat is still refusing to eat or interact, or showing other signs of sadness, your veterinarian may recommend an antidepressant.

“There are rare cases where cats may benefit from drugs to alter their behavior,” says Kornreich. 

Your vet might prescribe antidepressants like buspirone, trazodone and gabapentin, clomipramine, fluoxetine, sertraline, and paroxetine to treat symptoms ranging from urine marking and hypervocalization to obsessive compulsive behaviors in cats. 

Cats taking antidepressants can experience side effects such as lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy; more severe side effects, including seizures and liver toxicity, can also occur. 

It is extremely important to never give your cat antidepressants (or any medication) prescribed for a human. Only give your cat the exact medication and dosage prescribed by your veterinarian. 

How to Prevent Cat Sadness

Cat looking out window

It’s normal for cats to experience sadness during their lives. Your role as a pet parent is to ensure that your cat has the tools to manage transition and to minimize stressors that could lead to sadness and depression whenever possible.

Weitzman suggests maintaining consistent times for meals and enrichment, providing lots of love and affection, and scheduling regular health checkups with your veterinarian to rule out possible physical illnesses. 

Provide toys that allow cats to exhibit natural behaviors like hunting, pouncing, swiping and swatting; offer scratching posts and perches to keep cats from becoming bored, which can lead to stress and sadness.

You should always be on the lookout for signs of behavior change.

“By knowing your cat and checking in on them often, you will be able to catch if your cat is stressed and acting depressed,” Weitzman says. “The sooner you notice, the sooner you can start helping them turn things around.”

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