Is your aloof, fickle feline just being a cat? Or is there something more going on? Here’s how to tell.
Swishing and twitching its tail
An upset cat has a major tell: its tail. A happy kitty’s tail moves like a soft feather duster, but a sad or depressed cat may issue quick, hard strikes with its tail, says Danielle Bernal, a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food. Do a little investigating to find the source of their discomfort. “Cats are creatures of habit and do not like change, so start by addressing any recent changes,” she says. Need more help decoding your kitty’s wishes?
Suddenly becoming needy
Cats are known for being aloof, independent, and moody, but in reality, every cat has its own personality, and it’s a change you need to be most concerned about, Dr. Bernal says. “Many cat owners talk about how their cat curls up in their lap, smooches them in the morning, and is the perfect companion,” she says. “Should this suddenly change, then don’t put it down to the fact she is just being a cat—it may be the first sign that they are depressed.”
Swiping and scratching at your hand
Ah, the ol’ sneaky scratch-n-swipe, used by cats everywhere to show their displeasure with what’s happening! “When your feline friend resorts to the claws coming out and a quick swipe in frustration, you will know its mood is going down,” Dr. Bernal says. It doesn’t mean your cat is innately cranky or chronically depressed, just that it’s having a tough moment. Handle them like you would a sad child. “Nothing makes a cat calm down more than time with you,” she says.
Climbing the walls
Unlike their human counterparts, cats literally go off the wall (and on) when they’re upset. This bad behavior, particularly when they have been properly trained to follow your house rules, can be a sign of depression. Their bad mood might be stemming from boredom, so make sure you’re providing plenty of stimulation, Dr. Bernal says. “Make sure your home looks like a cat lives there—cat toys, climbing trees, cozy beds, toys, and scratching posts,” she says. “It lets the cat have its own space and feel like part of the household, and having its things to snooze in or play with will do just that.”
Pining away at the window
When you’re gone, your cat misses you, plain and simple—and that can turn into depression if you’re gone often. It is a common misconception cats are indifferent to humans; in fact, they want to bond with their owners and be included as a member of the family, says Brian Ogle, PhD, assistant professor of anthrozoology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Many times, humans do not interact enough with their cats because of this misconception, he says. Engaging in active play on a regular basis helps to solidify the bond between human and cat (not to mention make both of you feel warm and fuzzy inside), he adds.
Pooping in strange places
If your kitty is defecating in places other than their litter box, it can be a sign of an underlying medical issue, a situational problem, or depression. It’s vitally important that you react in a positive way (even if that’s the last thing you feel when you step on a fresh pile of cat feces), Dr. Ogle says. “Because they are solitary animals, they lack the cognitive capability to interpret subtle social cues or to connect negative punishment to their specific action,” he says. Instead, use positive reinforcement and make sure its litter box is clean and easily accessible.
Ignoring loved ones
Avoiding people isn’t necessarily a sign your cat is depressed, but turning away from you or ignoring you can be, says Kelly Hayes-Raitt, cat behavior specialist and author of How to Become a Housesitter. “When my cat didn’t like the man I was dating, he’d sit in a corner and face the wall, refusing to even look at me,” she says, adding it was a clear sign he was unhappy. Her solution: Don’t force interaction—your cat will come around to new people when it’s good and ready.
Hissing and spitting
When you see the stereotypical signs of a “mad cat”—hissing, spitting, back arched, claws out—it isn’t so much a sign of anger as it is their way of saying they are generally upset. “To deal with this behavior, I ignore the cat until she gets used to me and can see I’m not a threat,” she says. “I leave her alone in her sleeping area and after a bit she will usually warm up to me and refrain from hissing.”
Turning your furniture into a scratching post
If your cat isn’t normally a destroyer of furniture but has recently started shredding your drapes, your kitty could be stressed out, which may look like depression to worried human owners, says animal communication expert Karen Miura. She also recommends using a cat pheromone diffuser or spray to calm down your pet naturally. Learn why cats knead soft surfaces.
Spraying your walls
Cats are very territorial and see your house and yard as their kingdom, so when someone “invades” their space, it can tank their mood, Miura says. “Things like claw marks on furniture and urine spray on walls are simply fresh boundary lines your cat sets when it feels like its territory was threatened by an intruder,” she explains. “The intruder could be anything from a mouse in the cupboard to a change in routine.” If removing the intrusion isn’t an option (you aren’t about to kick out your new baby, for instance), try to keep as many things constant for your cat as possible. But there’s one habit you will want to change.
“Crying” for no apparent reason
Your furry friend might not speak English, but cats do use vocalizations to express their feelings. The sounds of a sad cat might not be the blue mews you’d expect. Any excessive meowing can be a sign that a cat is lonely or stressed, or needs attention for other health reasons, according to webmd.com. If your kitty seems down, leave more toys to keep it happy when you’re away, and give it extra cuddles when you can.