by Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
You’re probably familiar with Grumpy Cat, the little feline whose frown has made her famous across the internet. You may also be familiar with your own grumpy cat, if you happen to have a particularly temperamental one at home.
Cats are known for their diverse, often feisty, personalities; some are anxious, some reserved, others inquisitive. But what does it mean if your cat is acting depressed? Do cats even suffer from depression? Well, yes and no.
How is Depression in Cats Defined?
Certainly cats can exhibit depressed behavior, but the general consensus is that they do not experience the same emotional changes associated with clinical depression in humans.
“In general, depression in humans is considered a multifactorial disease,” says Dr. Lynn Hendrix, the owner of Beloved Pet Mobile Vet in Davis, California and a palliative care expert. Depression can be situational, caused by a stressful situation, or medical, due to chemical imbalances in the brain. The diagnosis is based on self-reported symptoms, says Hendrix, meaning that the symptoms can be expressed verbally to the doctor or psychologist.
Those diagnostic criteria are not available to veterinarians. Since we can’t ask cats exactly what they are feeling, whether they’re sad or angry or anxious or joyous, we must rely on the clues they give us through their behavior and daily activities and make our assessments based on that.
“The clinical signs we see tend to be loss of appetite, avoidance behavior, less active, and abnormal behavior, like hissing,” says Hendrix. Some cats may show changes in litterbox usage, while others have disturbed sleep patterns.
Other Causes for Symptoms of Depression in Cats
Unfortunately, those symptoms are caused by a wide variety of conditions in felines, so getting to the root of the problem usually involves a visit to the veterinarian to rule out other problems. Medical problems such as kidney disease or GI cancer can cause nausea and decreased appetite that mimic depression.
According to Hendrix, pain is one of the most underdiagnosed conditions in cats, seniors in particular, and is one of the leading causes of clinical signs of depression. “Most of the time, there is pain or physical disease causing a cat to act ‘depressed’,” she says.
In Hendrix’s experience, many pet owners who are dealing with terminally cats are concerned that their cat is experiencing depression, often mirroring their own sadness about a pet’s illness. Hendrix encourages those owners to consider medical causes instead. Often, “it is sick behavior,” she says. “Their terminal illness [is] making them feel sick, nauseous, painful.”
As a hospice and palliative care veterinarian, Hendrix is able to address those specific symptoms and help cats feel much more comfortable, even during the end of life process. In some cases, owners who were considering euthanasia actually postponed their decision due to the improvement in their pet’s temperament once proper treatment was instituted. For that reason, she recommends people seek veterinary care for pets exhibiting depressed behavior, as accurate diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve quality of life.
The Evaluation Process for Depression in Cats
Veterinarians will begin the evaluation by taking a full history of the symptoms and performing a complete physical examination.
“Bloodwork, chest x-rays, and abdominal ultrasound may be suggested by your veterinarian,” says Hendrix. Those baseline tests usually provide a good overall look at a pet’s health and organ function. Depending on the results, other tests may be recommended.
“It is possible that spinal tap and MRI may be needed,” says Hendrix, often if the veterinarian is concerned about a neurologic condition affecting the spine or brain. Infections, tumors, and inflammatory diseases of the nervous system can result in significant behavioral changes in cats. Changes due solely to stress and anxiety can be difficult to differentiate from medical conditions, so it is often a process of elimination to reach a diagnosis in cats.
If your cat gets a clean bill of health, your veterinarian may help you look for external stressors that are affecting him or her. “On occasion, stressors can cause depressive-like signs,” says Hendrix.
Although cats tend to be independent and resilient, they can suffer from anxiety due to changes in routine, feeling threatened, or the addition or loss of family members. Anxiety is, in fact, one of the major behavioral conditions seen by veterinarians. Chronic stress can have an impact on a pet’s emotional, and even physical, health. Self-inflicted hair loss, aggression, or changes in litterbox usage are often traced back to anxiety.
Treating the Cat’s Stress Instead of Depression
If a stressor can be identified and eliminated, often the symptoms will improve or resolve. A veterinarian or trainer experienced in cat behavior can help with recommendations to make a home environment less stressful to an anxious cat. A cat that feels exposed and doesn’t have a place to hide, for example, may respond to more covered furniture or additional vertical spaces in the house so he or she feels more in control of the environment.
Competition in multi-cat households can also cause stress. Depending on the situation, owners may need to add resources in the form of additional litterboxes and food bowls, or even separate cats that are not getting along.
As another environmental modification, some cats respond to pheromone diffusers such as Feliway, which can have a calming effect.
Using Medication to Treat Stress in Cats
For more severe cases, veterinarians can prescribe prescription medications which have been known to help with anxiety in some cats. Trazodone, gabapentin, alprazolam, and midazolam are just some of the options that a veterinarian may recommend, depending on the situation. A practitioner may also recommend referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist, who deals exclusively with behavior issues and can manage the problem through behavior modification suggestions as well as prescribe medications.
Regardless of the cause, a cat showing signs of depression can benefit greatly from a prompt evaluation by a veterinarian. If we resist applying the human definitions of mood disorders to our feline friends and instead evaluate them strictly from a cat-friendly perspective, there is often much we can do to make our beloved kitties happier and healthier!