We all know people who seem uninterested in life, unmotivated to exercise, reluctant to socialize, prone to overeat – or reluctant to eat at all. Humans certainly get the blues. But what about cats?
Ilana Reisner, DVM, director of the Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says: We dont really have a way to measure depression in cats, but we do know that they sometimes behave in depressed ways.
Signs of feline depression may include lethargy, lack of grooming, aggression, excessive sleeping, and loss or gain of appetite and weight. The best way to detect feline depression is to know what is normal for your particular cat, says Reisner, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Such baseline data makes it much easier to notice any changes in your cats appetite, weight, litter box or grooming habits, preference for company, or desire to play.
Is it a physical or social problem?
If your cats spark seems to be sputtering, first take her to the veterinarian. Cats with severe illnesses – including heart disease, cancer, and infectious diseases such as feline leukemia virus or rabies – might exhibit the same signs as psychologically depressed cats, explains Reisner. A good physical exam and appropriate lab tests can rule out underlying medical conditions.
If your cat is physically fine, review her recent life history. Perhaps you have moved, or there has been a birth, death, or divorce in your family. Like us, cats experience grief when a human companion or another pet departs or dies – particularly if the two played, groomed, and slept together, says Reisner. For some cats, the ensuing lack of activity and interest can be dramatic. But as long as the cat is physically well, this period of apparent sadness should pass with time.
Unbeknownst to many humans, notes Reisner, cats can form very close social bonds. On the other end of the spectrum are what Reisner calls pariah cats – those picked on by other household animals. Such cats, she says, often seem depressed, sequestering themselves to limited areas and hiding there – especially when there are visitors or loud noises in the house.
In the case of a pariah cat, keep loud noise to a minimum and consider putting a bell on more assertive pets so that your beleaguered kitty can hear them coming, Reisner suggests. For aggressor dogs, try outfitting a door to the cats hiding place with a long hook and eye or a kitty door, so she can slip in while the dog is kept out. Keep food, water, and a litter box in this safe area, and monitor her eating, drinking, and elimination habits. Spend time with her there, even just reading a book. This will reduce her stress level – and probably yours! says Reisner.
Remember that different cats have different personalities. Rather than comparing your timid cat with previous, more sociable animals, simply let it be okay for your cat to hide, Reisner recommends. You can entice your cat out of hiding with baby food or cat treats – but never force her. The operative word here is patience!
How you can help
If you think your depressed kitty may simply be lonely or under-stimulated, you may be right. With many cat owners working long hours, teenagers leaving for college, and kids at soccer practice or the mall, many cats are left to their own devices for extended periods. For some cats, mental stimulation helps ward off the monotony of indoor life.
Spend time lavishing your cat with affection and grooming, and engaging in daily play sessions to get her off the couch. Use interactive toys that you can keep jiggling, suggests Reisner. If the toy stops moving, your cat may consider it successfully killed and lose interest. Put these special toys away at the end of each play session to prevent your cat from becoming bored with them; she will then come to associate these fun toys with you. Getting your pal purring again is good for both of you, for she will in turn be there to cheer you up when you need it!