Skip to main content

PawTracks may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Can cats suffer from mental health conditions the way dogs can?

What you need to know about your cat's mental health

As it turns out, man’s best friend has quite a lot in common with humans. Just like us, dogs can suffer from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.” With such staggering numbers, it’s easy to understand why the self-help industry is booming. But what about cats? Are our feline family members similarly affected by mental health issues?

While dogs are typically more expressive regarding their moods, cats can be more difficult to read. A dog suffering from depression may refuse to play with his favorite toy, but what behaviors can you expect from your feline friend? Do cats suffer from depression and anxiety the way some dogs do? We’ll take a deep dive into the world of cat mental health, so we can answer the question once and for all.

A blue-eyed white cat sprawls out on top of a rug with a forlorn expression
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can cats have mental illnesses?

In her 2014 book “Animal Madness,” Dr. Laurel Braitman writes, “There is not a branch of veterinary science, ethology (the science of animal behavior), neuroscience, or wildlife ecology dedicated to investigating whether animals can be mentally ill.” While we can’t read our cat’s mind, we can use their typical behavior to gauge sudden personality changes that might ring a few alarm bells.

Two commonly diagnosed mental issues in cats are obsessive-compulsive disorder — often abbreviated as OCD — and cat anxiety. In cases of OCD, you may notice your cat excessively grooming the same location on her body, which can lead to redness, swelling, skin irritation, and even hair loss. However, excessive grooming is also a symptom of anxiety, though anxiety is often accompanied by additional concerning behaviors, such as decreased appetite, incessant yowling, and even drooling.

Details are scant regarding exactly how many cats suffer from mental health issues, but the fact remains that your frisky feline can be affected by OCD, anxiety, or depression. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that cats can even have autism.

An orange tabby cat lies on a rug exposing her belly, staring off into the distance as if she's sad
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What causes mental health issues in cats?

Did you know that many mental health issues in humans are hereditary? Unlike us, our feline companions don’t develop mental health disorders due to genetic predisposition. Instead, cats may develop mental health problems because of traumatic external problems.

Household changes, such as losing a family member, having new addition (adopting a new pet, the birth of a child, or a new housemate) to the home, being rehomed, and even having her daily routine disrupted may all contribute to your cat’s mental health issues.

Accidents, illnesses, toxic substances, or infectious diseases may also be to blame for your cat’s symptoms, so it’s always a good idea to speak with your vet about your cat’s behavioral changes.

A tiny Russian blue kitten stands inside of a wicker basket with a sad expression
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Symptoms of mental problems in cats

Here are a few symptoms you should look out for regarding your cat’s mental health.

Changes in body language

If your fur baby usually trots through the house like she owns the place, but is suddenly spending all her time under your bed — that is cause for alarm. However, not all changes in body language are as drastic. Look at the way your cat holds her ears and tail. Most cats tend to flatten their ears and tuck their tails between their legs when they feel anxious.

Unusual vocalizations

Is your cat meowing constantly all of a sudden? If a normally soft-spoken cat begins to sing the song of her people at all hours of the night, she’s not trying to annoy you. She’s trying to tell you that something is wrong. Cats also vocalize their discomfort when they’re ill or injured, so we recommend consulting a veterinarian.

Changes in appetite

While some cats are voracious eaters, others don’t eat all that much. If you notice sudden changes in your cat’s appetite, it’s time for a vet visit. Your cat may be skipping dinner because she has a toothache, but she could also be suffering from a mental health issue.

Destructive behaviors

If your cat claws up your ankles, shreds the arms of your sofa, or begins urinating and/or defecating outside the litter box, that’s a good indication that something is wrong. Kidney infections aren’t uncommon in cats, so having a few tests done to get to the root of the problem is always a good idea.

An orange tabby cat lies on a chair with her face buried in her front paws
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How to keep your cat mentally healthy

While some life events are beyond our control, that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps we can take to help keep our cats as mentally healthy as possible. Just like dogs, cats can suffer from boredom, and they often become destructive when they have too much energy and too little to do. A high-quality cat tree, plenty of bonding time with their favorite human family members, and a variety of engaging toys can all provide your feline fur baby with much-needed mental stimulation.

As much as diet isn’t a cure-all, it does play a role in your cat’s mental health. Nutrient-dense foods with omega-3 fatty acids provide essential cognitive-boosting vitamins and minerals. Additionally, they can help prevent mental decline as your cat ages.

Your cat’s mental and physical health mean the world to you, so we recommend a cautious approach. If you notice a change in your cat’s appetite, behavior, or appearance, it’s not a bad idea to speak to your vet. When it comes to your fur baby, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Editors' Recommendations

Mary Johnson
Mary Johnson is a writer and photographer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work has been published in PawTracks and…
Is it safe for cats to be outside in winter? The answer may surprise you
Some cats love being outside, but is it safe for them during winter?
A black cat with a dusting of snow on her coat stands outside

Every loving feline owner knows that a cat is more than just a furry roommate. She's a member of the family. That's why -- for her own safety and your peace of mind -- we always recommend keeping cats indoors. However, some cats are determined to find their way outdoors no matter what.

While cats can generally withstand both extreme heat and extreme cold without suffering the consequences, veterinarians advise you to remain vigilant once the temperature begins to dip into the 40s. But that's only the basics! If you've been wondering about the potential dangers for cats outside in winter, you've come to the right place. Here's everything you need to know.

Read more
Can cats have autism? Here’s what to know about unusual behavior in cats
Learn about special needs and autism in cats
Cat with blue eyes staring into the distance

Can cats have autism? This is a question that might have crossed your mind as you try to decipher your cat's behavior patterns. Even though the diagnosis is centered on human behavior, many pet lovers and experts have discovered similarities between special-needs cats and people with autism. Still, cats are typically only labeled as special needs if they have a diagnosed physical or mental disability.

There are several behaviors in cats that are similar to those found in humans on the autism spectrum. These include:

Read more
Lap time, nap time: Why your lap cat chooses to sit on you
Find out the real reasons your cat lies in your lap
Cat sitting in a lap

As a pet parent, nothing is better than when your cat decides to curl up for a nap on your lap. Sometimes it can be slightly irritating when you need to get some work done, attempt to move your fur baby, and they look at you like you've not only offended them, but also the entire domestic cat species. But it's impossible to say no to their adorable noses and whiskers, so you let them stay. Have you ever wondered why so many of our feline family members become lap cats? We'll tell you everything you need to know about why cats love to sit on you.

Reasons your cat loves to sit on you
Wonder why your lap is your cat's favorite place to sleep? Here are some of the most common reasons.
Cats sit on you because they seek connection and attention
Despite their reputation for being aloof, most cats crave attention, especially from their favorite people. Cats get lonely when you’re not around and will beg for attention when you are. One way they do this is by sitting on your lap; it’s hard to ignore them when they’re right on top of you! They also come to you for connection and love. Usually, a cat on the lap gets affection, so your cat may come to you when they want to be petted and feel loved.
Cats get on your lap because you’re warm
Whether it’s by the radiator or in a sunbeam, kitties love napping in warm spots. One of the coziest places in your home happens to be wherever you are because of the heat your body emits. This could be why your cat likes sitting with you. They may choose to sit on your lap because they want to soak up all your body heat. Luckily, it’s not a one-way street; your cat’s body heat and fur can help keep you warm, too. With your lap cat, you’ll both stay nice and cozy.
Cats sit on you because they trust you
Sitting on top of you is a cat's ultimate sign of trust. Cats only sit in the laps of people they really feel safe with. This is especially true if they nap on you. Your cat is essentially saying they trust you to protect them from any predators while they're napping. To build even more trust with your pet, make sure you’re not forcing them to sit on your lap, and you’re giving them the option to walk away when they want. By acknowledging their freedom and leaving your lap open to your kitty, you're encouraging them to trust you even more.
Cats like the way you smell and sound
Your body is like a white-noise machine for cats. They find the noises human beings naturally make, like breathing and heartbeats, to be very soothing. It helps them relax into an easy slumber. Your cat may also be attracted to your unique scent. Smelling you may make your cat feel safer, making it easier for them to fall asleep. This can also explain why your cat always seems to love sleeping on your clothes, bed, and other possessions.

Read more