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Is Your Cat SAD?

4 tips to beat seasonal depression in cats, according to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Leanne Lilly.

by Jodi Helmer
November 11, 2021
Cat cuddled in a pink blanket in front of a window
Toncha / Adobe Stock

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Your Instagram feed went from #summervibes to #downwithwinter with the switch of the clock. Now that the sun sets before your work day ends, all you want to do when you get home is crawl under the covers, consume too many carbs, and binge British crime dramas — and your cat is right there with you. You’ve probably asked the question “Why do cats sleep so much?” and they may be asking the same of you in the winter.

For humans, the arrival of winter can trigger a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD causes symptoms like low mood, lack of energy, trouble sleeping, irritability, and changes in appetite that are linked to colder temperatures and lack of sunlight. There is a lot of documented data about SAD in humans, but Dr. Leanne Lilly, DVM, DACVB, believes cats can experience seasonal depression, too.

“Is there a recognition of seasonal affective disorder in cats? No. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t cats experiencing it,” Dr. Lilly says. “There are [cats] who seem to have significant changes in their overall mental health, wellbeing, and behavior with seasonal changes.” Not sure if your cat suffers from seasonal depression? Watch for these telltale signs: Dr. Lilly notes that depressed cats might sleep longer, lose their appetites, feel less interested in affection or interaction, or show signs of agitation like more “zoomies,” or general restlessness. If you recognize any of these changes, resist the temptation to play feline psychologist.

“Cats are notorious for hiding their illnesses [so] we want to rule out other possible causes of behavior changes,” Dr. Lilly says. “If we rule out illness and the behaviors go away when the season changes and then come back again next fall or winter, then we can feel more confident saying it’s seasonal affective disorder.” Since there are no approved medications to treat seasonal depression, Dr. Lilly has four pro tips to help your cat overcome the winter blahs.

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1. Let the Sun Shine In

Shorter days (and less sunlight) are believed to trigger chemical changes in the brain, including declines in melatonin and serotonin, the hormones that regulate sleep and mood. Provide your cat with some light therapy by hanging a cat hammock in the window or setting up a bed near a glass door, especially if there is a bird feeder outside so your cat gets some mental stimulation. Setting up a “catio” or putting your cat in a harness and taking them out for a little vitamin D could also help boost their mood. 

2. Prioritize Playtime

Whether your cat responds to seasonal changes by sleeping more or feeling increasingly restless, exercise can help because it produces endorphins, the “feel good” hormones. Dr. Lilly suggests interactive cat toys, games, and feeding puzzles that encourage your cat to burn some mental and physical energy. “Increasing play sessions and making sure we’re interacting with them at least twice a day, as close to dawn and dusk [when sunlight levels are low] as possible, can help,” she says. 

3. Change Up Their Diet

Just like polishing off a bag of chips isn’t a cure for your low mood, offering your cat more kitty carbohydrates won’t help them overcome seasonal affective disorder. Talk to your vet about whether switching up their diet or offering some mood-boosting, stress-relieving supplements might help. Dr. Lilly points to probiotics, which can balance gut bacteria and help alleviate anxiety, and special “calming” diets as options that might help reduce stress, depression, and anxiety in some cats.

4. Encourage Socialization

Depressed cats may want to spend more time solo, but socialization is key for improving their mood. To entice cats out from under the bed — literally — Dr. Lilly suggests placing heating pads around the house. “It gives cats alternate places that are actually socially interactive where they can stay warm without missing out on social interactions,” she explains. Spending extra time with your cat — even if you’re both curled up under a blanket and watching television — counts, too. Just as your cat might be suffering from the winter blues, if you are too, hanging out with your favorite feline may be a necessary mood booster for both of you.

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.