Veterinarian Reviewed on April 2, 2014 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
Signs and Symptoms
We often hear about clinical depression in people, but depression is not just a disorder of humans. Cats can suffer from depression just like the people who care for them. Depression affects the brain and nervous system, causing a number of signs and symptoms that you will notice if your cat is depressed. A depressed cat will seem more lethargic than usual. He or she will probably not want to play with favorite toys and may avoid you as well. The cat will show little or no interest in food and will not come running for favorite treats. If you look at the cat’s face, you may notice a dull or even sad expression. The cat may hide for long periods of time and refuse to come out of hiding, even to eat. He may also sleep much more than usual. A severely depressed cat may stop grooming and may even become aggressive when approached.
In order to pick up on these symptoms in a cat, you must really know your animal’s usual demeanor and behavior. Many signs of depression are subtle and can even be considered normal behavior to a certain extent in cats. If you know your cat well, you will know his or her usual behavior, and you will be able to spot changes that may indicate depression.
The process of diagnosing depression in cats is similar to the diagnosis of an emotional disorder in humans. There are no laboratory tests for depression, but a veterinarian can use a detailed description of the cat’s current behavior compared to his or her usual behavior as well as a description of any changes in the cat’s environment to make the diagnosis. It will also be necessary to rule out other medical conditions since many of the symptoms of depression can also be a result of illness or injury. An account of the mood or emotional state of companion humans that are close to the animal can also help a professional make the diagnosis of depression in a cat.
Several neurotransmitters play a role in regulating mood. These include adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline – a group of chemicals known as monoamines. In depressed people and animals, the balance of these chemicals is upset. Just as it is in humans, depression in cats can be related to low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin has also been called the “feel good chemical” in the brain. It acts within the nervous system to boost mood, increase alertness and boost energy.
When functioning properly, neurotransmitters send messages to the brain by sending the message along a chain of receptors. In a depressed cat (or person), this communication relay system is impaired, and messages of well-being cannot get through to the animal’s brain.
Scientists believe that environmental stress and emotional trauma can have a physical effect on the nervous system which results in the imbalance of neurochemicals. Sometimes the result is depletion of a particular neurotransmitter, and other times, the receptor sites for these chemicals are reduced or blocked in some way.
One of the reasons a cat may become depressed is that his or her human companion is suffering from emotional issues. Cats, like humans, pick up on the moods of those around them. Other common reasons include moving to a new home, the introduction of a new animal or person into the household, or the loss of a family member, whether through death or because the person moves away. Cats can also become depressed when another pet in the household dies, particularly if the two animals were close and played together.
If one of these common triggers has occurred in your household around the time that you notice symptoms such as lethargy, disinterest and loss of appetite in your cat, it is reasonable to suspect that the cat may be suffering from depression. You can consult with a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical issue and to confirm the diagnosis.
Often a change in circumstances can help to reverse the cat’s depressive symptoms. You can help a cat that is suffering from depression by addressing the situation that you suspect has caused or triggered the depression. For example, if you believe your cat is depressed because of a change in environment, providing interesting places for her to go or playing with her more often may help to improve her mood. Spending more time with your cat may also help if the issue is related to loss of a family member or to the addition of a family member that has been taking up more of your time. If your cat is picking up on your depression, getting treatment yourself will most likely help to alleviate your cat’s symptoms as well.
Also be sure that your cat is eating enough. Since depressed animals will often avoid food, you may need to add extra treats to your pet’s diet. Sometimes cats will eat more if their food has a stronger aroma. If you warm canned cat food or pour some oil from tuna over it, you can make it more appealing to your pet. You can also try baby food such as pureed chicken or turkey, which tends to have a stronger aroma than cat food.
Many times veterinarians prescribe medications for severely depressed animals. Drugs like Prozac and other prescription antidepressants can be used to treat depressed cats, but they cause side effects in animals just as they do in people. There are a number of natural treatments for depression in cats that can be tried in lieu of prescription medications. For example, hypericum perforatum, or St. John’s Wort, is an herb that is often referred to as ‘Nature’s Prozac.’ It is one of the best known herbs for treating anxiety, depression and other nervous disorders and can be used safely in cats. Another herb that is helpful for cat depression is Matricaria recutita, or German chamomile. Chamomile has calming properties that help alleviate symptoms of stress.
For cats that are reacting to the loss of a family member, homeopathic preparation such as Ignatia and Capsicum can address symptoms of melancholy and lethargy that may result from the animal’s grief. Ignatia is derived from the bean of a small tree that grows in the Philippines, while capsicum is derived from pepper plants.
Another natural substance that may be useful in treating cat depression is the mineral Kalium phosphate. Kalium phosphate is a salt that acts as a nervous system tonic by helping to increase the absorption of nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters that are necessary to balance mood. While many of these natural remedies can be used alone, there are also herbal preparations formulated with all or some of these ingredients that can be given to cats to treat depression.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan