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How To Tell If Your Pet is Anxious or Depressed

Lianna here. I was browsing Reddit yesterday (as one does) and saw a post on r/cats asking "Is my cat depressed?"

This person went on to describe their senior cat as low-energy, with little interest in playtime, and sleeping a lot.

They wanted to know: Is that normal, or should they take action to cheer up their kitty?

And while the answer to these questions will often be "It depends," it made me wonder if I knew all the signs of pet anxiety and depression.

So I did some research. 🤓

And I found some unusual signs that I wouldn't have recognized! Naturally, I wanted to share them with you.

* More specifically: "It depends on how your cat usually behaves, whether this is a big change in their behavior, and what else in your home has changed."

🐾 Signs Your Pet Is Anxious or Depressed 🐾

Quick note: Though anxiety and depression can often make themselves known through similar behaviors, they're NOT the same thing. Anxiety is often caused by external stressors, while depression can result from a lack of stimulation (or even from dietary deficiencies)!

Signs of Anxiety in Cats — Gray Cat looking anxious with ears down

Anxiety in cats looks like...

Mood shifts: If your kitty is generally calm, purrs easily, and enjoys being petted —but lately, they're a little jumpier and it's harder to get their motor going —heightened anxiety might be to blame.

Activity changes: Hiding or using the bathroom outside the litter box are two telltale signs of a stressed-out cat.

Aggression: If your cat is swiping, biting, or lashing out at your other pets, they're showing you that they're anxious and uncomfortable.

Meowing more than normal: Some breeds are more vocal than others, so use your cat's normal behavior as a benchmark here. If you're hearing from Mr. Whiskers more than usual, there could be something wrong.

Vomiting: Cats are sensitive, and their stomachs are often the first to fall victim to higher stress levels. A cat that's throwing up more than usual (or any more than once every two weeks) may be stressed. (Take them to the vet as soon as possible to rule out other issues, though.)

Overgrooming: If your cat is compulsively licking, chewing, or scratching, they're taking their stress out on their own body.

Appetite or weight changes: Just like people, cats might eat more OR less when they're stressed. A cat who's packing on the pounds or losing weight is probably reacting to something stressful in the environment.

Tip: When changing to a new food or cat litter, add the new item into the old, a little bit at a time, over a week or two.

This gradual shift will highly reduce the likelihood of stress, stomach upsets, or undesirable behavior.

Signs of Anxiety in Dogs — Yellow lab laying down looking anxious

Anxiety in dogs looks like...

Growling, whining, or crying: Your dog will use his voice to let you know when something's going wrong. Keep an ear out for "new" noises (ones you haven't heard your dog make before), as these can be a solid indication that something is wrong. It can either be anxiety or maybe your dog is in pain. Either way, a trip to the vet might be the best option.

"Guilty" body language: Before you go hunting for a destroyed paper-towel roll or chewed-up shoe — consider whether your pup's flattened ears, wide eyes, or tucked tail could be a sign of stress, not guilt.

Destructive behavior: OK, now you can go looking for your chewed-up shoe.

Freezing up: Like anxious people, anxious dogs might shut down. If your dog stops moving around and gets very still, proceed with caution — because their next move might be unpredictable.

Pacing back and forth: When dogs are agitated, they won't allow themselves to settle down. The key here is to pay attention to how long they pace. If it's longer than 15 minutes or so, there's probably something stressing them out.

According to the American Kennel Club, around 14% of dogs experience separation anxiety.

The good news? With time and training, most dogs can learn to tolerate being away from their owners for longer.

Signs of Depression in Cats — Cat underneath a couch looking depressed

Depression in cats can look like...

Finally, an answer to our Redditor's question! Here are some key signs that your cat is depressed. (Notice how a lot of them are related to what cats DON'T do, versus what they do.)

Loss of interest in eating: This can lead to weight loss. Just a small amount of weight loss (like 1 pound!) can be detrimental to your cat's health, so keep an eye on their appetite and what interests them.

Sleeping during periods they're normally awake: Yes, cats sleep a lot. But if your cat is ALWAYS awake at, say, 6PM, and you find them sleeping... something might be wrong.

Loss of interest in physical contact: If your touchy-feely kitty stops bumping her head against yours, hopping into your lap, or brushing up against your legs, they might be depressed.

Loss of interest in playing: A shorter attention span or simply ignoring invitations to roughhouse (especially when your cat is usually very playful) might indicate depression. Read 10 Easy Enrichment Ideas for Cats to help them stay stimulated and healthy.

Decrease in grooming: A dull, matted, or dirty coat is a big sign that something is wrong. If you notice a change in grooming behaviors, make an appointment with your vet right away.

Signs of Depression in Dogs — A Dog laying in his bed looking sad and depressed

Doggy depression often manifests like this...

Lethargy or low energy: Just like depression in humans, depression in dogs saps energy to do more than the bare minimum. If your dog used to love long walks and now loses interest after just a couple laps around the block, it's time to get them evaluated for depression. Some may ask, "Is my dog depressed or sick?" and a trip to the vet can help with that. 

Disinterest in playing: You throw the ball... and your pup just sits there and watches it fly away. If that's unusual (and your dog isn't just being a jerk today), he might well be depressed.

Clingy or needy behavior: If your dog has recently developed separation anxiety (or it's intensified), this could be a case where depression is manifesting as anxiety symptoms. Think about what's changed in your household recently. Moving or losing another pet or human companion are two big potential triggers.

🤔 What Causes Anxiety and Depression in Dogs & Cats, Anyway?

Well, pretty much the same things that cause anxiety and depression in humans! Dogs can get stressed out by...

  • Separation from their people
  • Loud noises
  • Unfamiliar environments
  • Other animals or people

And cats get stressed out by many of the same things.

Cats can also be a bit sneakier than dogs, so you might not know that one of these causes is to blame for your cat's anxious behavior:

  • New or unpleasant smells (from an animal inside or outside the house, or even from new toys or furniture)
  • Your own stress — This is a big one! Like dogs, cats pick up on their humans' stress levels, and will manifest it in their own ways.Such as...
  • Changes in diet or litter: Cats show us their preferences through their behavior. If you've recently changed up their food or litter (especially a big change, like going from clay litter to pellets), your cats might be letting you know they're unhappy with the new routine.

When in doubt, bring your pet to the vet.

Our pets are complex creatures. It's important to rule out any underlying medical issues before diagnosing your cat or dog with mood problems — so if you're concerned about any of the signs above, it's best to make an appointment with your vet. 💙

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