Critter Culture
How Do I Know if My Cat Is Unhappy?

How Do I Know if My Cat Is Unhappy?

Critter Culture Staff



Cats have a reputation as aloof, indifferent pets, but this isn't an accurate stereotype. Some cats are highly independent and keep to themselves, but many cats are also very affectionate and want to spend time with their human families. Even independent cats interact with people and other cats in the house to some extent. A cat can also become depressed, unhappy, or sad. Pet owners are responsible for the health and well-being of their furry companions. Caring for a cat includes understanding their behavior so you can recognize signs of unhappiness and depression.


Spraying and inappropriate bathroom habits

white-gray tabby cat marking its territory in the garden and spraying pee

Spraying is usually associated with male cats marking their territory. However, both genders sometimes spray to comfort themselves. Cats that feel uncomfortable in their environment may spray to surround themselves with a soothing, familiar scent. This behavior can also be related to grief if another animal passed away recently. A person or pet moving out of the home can trigger grieving behaviors too. Urinating outside the litter box instead of inside it may be a form of spraying as a self-soothing measure due to stress or depression. However, your cat could struggle to enter the litter box due to injury or arthritis. Take your cat to a veterinarian to check for physical health problems before trying other interventions.


Changes in daily routine

Black cat sleeping Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Adult cats establish routines and daily habits. They expect regular meal times, and some cats even use the litter box at the same time each day. It's not unusual for a cat to pick a favorite napping spot and use it exclusively for weeks or months at a time. An abrupt change in routine is a sign that something is wrong.


Vocal cues

cat meowing

Picking up on vocal cues depends on knowing your cat's normal behavior. Some cats are very vocal and have a wide range of meows and other sounds. On the other hand, some cats rarely meow at all. You should pay attention if your cat's vocalization suddenly changes. An unhappy cat or kitten may become very quiet or try to communicate vocally. Yowling noises, which sound like low-pitched or extended meows, are a sign of distress.


Poor grooming habits

Angry ginger cat with a dirty face.

Cats are usually very clean and spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Matted, dull, or soiled fur is a glaring sign that something is wrong. Other signs of poor grooming include dirty or frayed nails, dried food around the cat's mouth, urine or feces stuck to the belly or tail, and clumps of litter stuck to your cat's paws. You may notice an unpleasant odor coming from your cat's fur. Dirt and dry skin may build up around the base of the cat's tail. Poor grooming may occur due to depression, illness, or dental problems.



British shorthair cat hiding under the table chendongshan / Getty Images

Although some cats like to spend time alone, you should always pay attention to sudden or escalating isolation. A sick or depressed cat may hide and avoid interaction. Sometimes cats react to changes, such as a new person or animal in the house, by pointedly ignoring their owners. These situations may be resolved by giving your cat time to adjust and showering kitty with extra love and attention. Take your cat to the veterinarian if you can't identify the problem or isolation lasts more than a few days.


Clingy behavior

Playful red cat gnaws and scratches the owner's hand zsv3207 / Getty Images

Some cats want attention when they're frightened, lonely, or sick. Your cat may become very clingy and sit on your lap constantly. The cat may even try to climb your leg or wrap her paws around your ankle. Cats with affectionate personalities may escalate behaviors such as burrowing under blankets on the bed or laying on top of you.



Abyssinian cat hisses and prepares to attack Vyacheslav Dumchev / Getty Images

We're all familiar with the classic signs of aggression — a hissing, spitting, or growling cat with an arched back and raised hackles. However, these behaviors only mean the cat is very upset. The underlying cause could be pain, fear, or anxiety. Give your cat space immediately if they display aggressive behavior. Wait for the cat to calm down before interacting with them again.


Destructive behavior

cat scratching leather furniture AllNikArt / Getty Images

Young cats and kittens may tear up paper products, scratch furniture, climb curtains, and engage in general destruction while they're playing. This is normal, but sudden destructive behavior from an adult cat is concerning. The cat may be acting out due to boredom, stress, or depression. Some cats alternate periods of destructive behavior with periods of inactivity and lack of interest in toys or favorite activities.


Altered eating habits and appetite

An unimpressed kitten walks away from her food bowl, having not eaten the cat food Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Refusing to eat or a reduced appetite are classic signs of depression. Unhappy cats may lose interest in their favorite foods or ignore treats. Sometimes an increased appetite is cause for concern too. Your cat may react to fear or uncertainty by eating more, especially if the cat is a rescue that experienced hunger in the past. Meowing when a food bowl is empty or disruptive behavior around mealtimes could be signs of food insecurity.


Body language

Fluffy Grey Kitten crawls under a Sofa Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Cats express emotions through body language. Flattened ears or whiskers held tightly against the cat's face are signs of stress. A cat may flick their ears back and forth to monitor alarming noises. Happy, confident cats usually hold their tails up, but unhappy cats hold their tails in low positions or tuck their tails under their bodies. Depressed cats may walk along walls or underneath furniture with their bodies close to the ground to avoid being noticed.


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