Do Indoor Cats Get Depressed?

The question as to whether cats get depressed is related to lifestyle and how they’re treated and not simply to being kept indoors vs being allowed to roam outside.

Research has settled the fact that cats do have emotions, thanks to the existence of a region in their brain that is very similar to the human brain.

While many cats certainly can live safely and comfortably indoors only, some of them develop emotional problems, such as depression, but it’s probably due to lack of mental stimulation related to lack of attention indoors. As with people, there are wide differences. Some cats don’t mind being alone while others absolutely need and will thrive on companionship and certain activities. This companionship may be with their human, or with another cat or two…or more. Or “all of the above.”

Not everyone is equipped to handle a solitary life, including cats, who may need emotional outlets for normal feline behaviors. If they are unable to express these needs, they may become depressed and will demonstrate what we call problem behaviors, such as scratching everything in sight, urinating outside the litter box, hiding, excess shedding, over-grooming, and even sleeping beyond the normal 16 or so hours per day. They may overeat or refuse to eat. They may vomit more often.

In fact, my cats do not sleep that much. For one thing, which helps a lot, they have numerous housemates, who often become playmates. They have me, a very involved cat guardian. They need to play often and get some exercise. I provide toys, cat-friendly furniture they may climb, and interactive games. They are given a wide variety of foods to satisfy even the pickiest appetites, and novel items to chew on, such as “cat grass” and raw bones. Others may prefer one of the many cat chew toys available these days.

These activities are often regarded as more easily achieved if they can go outdoors regularly, or even at will. Many countries favor allowing cats to satisfy their desires with easy access to the great outdoors. U.S. cats are more likely to be kept indoors by cautious and concerned owners to prevent unhappy outcomes, such as accidents, predator attacks, mean human attacks, and potential disease from contact with strays who may be ill.

Indoors, we have many opportunities for activities such as outdoor viewing from window perches, boxes to hide in or play hide-n-seek with the others, chasing a laser pointer, and the frequent favorite, catnip, though not all cats relate to it.

If going outdoors is important for your cat’s emotional well-being, consider supervised walks on a leash. Using a harness is preferable to a collar, as most cats have little trouble shrugging out of them. Just condition them to its use while still inside the house!

Another option is to build an outdoor enclosure, called a “catio.” I’m working on one this summer.

Cats Have Feelings

About 30 years ago, long before I became a rescue and shelter director, and ultimately a certified cat behavior consultant, I learned a valuable lesson. Unfortunately, my three cats were the involuntary, unwitting, unwilling and unintentional victims of what happened. My family had planned a one-month vacation and had motel reservations lined up in advance along the planned itinerary. We left on time, for once, and were feeling confident we would make all arranged stops on schedule.

And then it happened:

As we pulled out of the driveway, the cell phone rang. Our pet sitter called and canceled at the literal last minute. Gasp!

Unable to find replacement help despite frantic calls to everyone we knew, we felt we had only one choice: Go back inside and set things up for the cats’ extended needs. We didn’t know as much about cats at the time as we later learned, so we figured the new arrangements would work. Cats are independent, right? They sleep all the time, right? They’re low maintenance, right?

We filled the bathtub with water and left a sink faucet dripping slowly. We opened two 25-pound bags of kibble in a large box. We poured 50 pounds of litter into two large metal pans in the basement. And we left a radio playing and toys all over the floor.

We took our new kitten with us, and she had a ball. But there simply was no room for three adult cats in our camper van, too. We continued on our journey and “a good time was had by all.”

We had misgivings, but with everything “set in stone,” we forced ourselves to hold onto an optimistic mindset. Plus, we used the phone every few days to ask neighbors to stop by and peek in the windows. We discovered on our return, however, no one had had the time to do that.

When we came home, we got quite the wake-up call. My three cats, two Siamese and one calico, were beyond upset. They were virtually insane. Yowling constantly for the next three days in the crawl space, they refused to come out. They stopped eating. The litter box was being used, but they couldn’t stop “yelling at us” for leaving them alone. They finally went hoarse and couldn’t say anything anymore.

This is the part that amazes me: I was raised during a time of “great scientific revelation” and was taught that animals do not have feelings; they are simply reflexively acting on instincts and reacting to anything unfamiliar. Even my science teachers in school taught that animals don’t feel pain! It’s “just a reflex” if they flinch or howl. But now I could no longer accept that thinking. This was not “reactive reflexes.” This was gut-wrenching emotion! Watching my fur-babies in such distress, I actually shouted out, “On my gosh, cats have FEELINGS,” and I vowed to never hurt them again! How could I have missed that? But a lot of people do.

It’s no exaggeration to say this awakening jolt completely changed my life. I vowed to devote the rest of my life to saving and respecting them in the process. As a result, I now have tamed numerous so-called ferals, strays-gone-wild and unmanageable cats with behavior problems. I started my shelter in 2002 and have been rescuing and rehoming mostly cats (over 1,000) since then. I took in many dogs, too, but I am a quintessential Cat Lady now. I will never live without cats.