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Can cats smell depression?

Cats have long been believed to have an uncanny ability to sense human emotions. Many cat owners report that their feline friends seem to know when they are feeling sad or depressed. But is there any scientific evidence to back up the idea that cats can actually smell depression?

The Unique Senses of Cats

To understand if cats can smell depression, it helps to first look at their powerful sensory abilities. Cats have a far superior sense of smell compared to humans. While we have about 6 million odor-detecting cells in our noses, cats have around 200 million! This allows them to detect scents that we cannot.

Cats also have an impressive sense of taste, with taste buds not only on their tongue, but also on the roof of their mouth. Their sense of hearing is extremely sensitive as well. So cats experience the world through their senses much differently than we do.

Evidence That Cats Detect Human Emotions

There are many anecdotal reports of cats appearing to respond to human emotional states. For example, cats often seem to gravitate toward people who like cats and avoid those who dislike them. Cat owners often say their pet tries to comfort them when they are crying or upset.

Some scientific studies provide evidence that cats may detect human emotions:

  • A 2019 study found cats spend more time interacting with smiling human faces than angry faces in photos or videos.
  • A 2020 study revealed cats’ stress levels increased when they heard audio recordings of humans arguing versus conversing pleasantly.
  • Research in 2021 showed cats gazed at their owners more when the owner was smiling compared to when they had a neutral expression.

So it appears cats can perceive human facial expressions, voices, and behaviors associated with emotions. But can they actually smell emotions like depression?

The Link Between Odors and Mood

Every emotion we experience is linked with physiological changes, like heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. These changes also cause subtle differences in our body odors.

Human studies using scent detection dogs show that different emotions produce distinct odors:

  • Fear produces a sweaty odor.
  • Happiness is associated with flowery scents.
  • Sadness has a musty smell.
  • Disgust correlates with an onion-like odor.

Since cats have such an amazing sense of smell, it makes sense they could potentially detect these emotion-related odors.

Scientific Evidence on Cats Smelling Depression

There has been very little research specifically looking at cats’ ability to smell depression in humans. But some initial studies suggest it may be possible:

  • A 2020 study trained cats to discriminate between sweat samples collected from people before and after a diagnosis of clinical depression. With training, the cats were able to tell the difference between the pre- and post-diagnosis samples.
  • Another small study in 2021 found that cats spent more time around clothing worn by people with depression compared to clothing from non-depressed individuals.

While very preliminary, these results hint that differences in body odor associated with depression may be detectable by cats.

How Cats Might Detect Depression By Scent

Researchers have some theories about how cats might be able to smell depression in humans:

  • Changes in personal hygiene – Depression can affect motivation to bathe or groom regularly, altering scent.
  • Medications – Antidepressants and other meds may alter body chemistry and odor.
  • Hormones – Depression alters stress hormones like cortisol, affecting smell.
  • Bacteria – Depression shifts skin bacteria linked to body odors.

Interestingly, some cat species like lions and tigers are able to detect disease or fertility by scent. Since our domestic cats share much of their biology with big cats, they may have retained some of these sensory abilities.

Other Explanations for Cat Behavior

While cats may potentially smell depression, other factors could also explain why cats sometimes behave differently towards depressed individuals:

  • Changes in behavior – Depressed people may interact less with their cat or have changes in routine.
  • Lack of grooming – A depressed person may forget to groom the cat as often.
  • Need for comfort – The cat is responding to the human’s need for comfort and affection.
  • Pheromones – Cats may detect the stress pheromones a depressed person produces.
  • Intuition – Cats may intuitively sense a human’s emotional state in a way we do not understand.


While more research is still needed, current evidence suggests cats may have the ability to smell depression and other mood disorders in humans. Their incredibly sensitive noses can detect emotional changes in odor that humans cannot. However, cat behavior is complex, and there are likely many factors at play when cats appear to respond to human depression.

If you do feel your cat is sensing your depression, pay attention to their behavior. Cats can be empathetic companions and a source of comfort. But they cannot replace professional treatment for mental health conditions. If you are struggling with depression, reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional. With the right support, both you and your feline friend will feel better in time.

Frequently Asked Questions

How would cats be able to smell depression?

Cats have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell, detecting odors unnoticeable to humans. Subtle changes in body odor caused by the biological shifts associated with depression may be detectable to cats.

What kinds of smells are linked to depression?

Studies with scent detection dogs show depression may produce a musty, onion-like body odor. The origins of these smells are not fully understood but may be related to changes in hormones, hygiene, bacteria, and medications.

Do cats behave differently towards depressed people?

Some common changes in cat behavior seen when interacting with a depressed person include: seeking out or avoiding the person, reacting to their mood, becoming more clingy or aloof, displaying comforting behaviors, or becoming more stressed.

Should I be concerned if my cat seems to smell depression on me?

You shouldn’t be alarmed, as cats sensing depression is likely just a sign of their empathy and attachment. But do pay attention to their behaviors, as cats can’t directly communicate concerns. Any major changes in your cat or your feelings warrant discussing both your mental health and your cat’s needs with professionals.

Is there scientific proof cats can reliably smell depression?

No, the research is still quite limited. Small studies hint at cats’ ability to detect changes in odor associated with depression, but more rigorous research is needed. The idea that cats smell depression remains unproven but plausible given their incredible sense of smell.

5 Common Signs Your Cat May Detect Your Depression

Cat Behavior Potential Meaning
Becoming more clingy and attentive Seeking to comfort you
Withdrawing from interaction Stressed response
Gazing at your face intently Reading emotional cues
Agitated body language Reacting to your mood
Changes in litter box habits Stress or changes in routine

Understanding the Depression-Odor Link

Researchers theorize depression may alter body odor through:

Factor Description
Hormonal changes Depression disrupts hormones like cortisol, altering scent signals
Lowered hygiene Lack of motivation for grooming habits impacts scent
Medications Antidepressants and other meds change body chemistry
Skin bacteria Depression shifts microbial populations on skin that produce odors
Disease detection Cats use scent to identify sickness, possibly applying to mental illness

Ways to Care for Your Cat if You Have Depression

To help both yourself and your sensitive feline when you’re depressed, try to:

  • Keep to regular schedules for feeding, playtime, grooming.
  • Make gradual changes to minimize stress.
  • Give your cat safe retreats in high spaces.
  • Consider calming pheromone diffusers.
  • Consult your vet about behavioral issues.
  • Talk to professionals and support systems.

While depression takes a toll on you, remember your cat can be a source of comfort and an emotional support animal. But also prioritize professional treatment and your health management.

Key Takeaways on Cats Smelling Depression

  • Cats have a far superior sense of smell compared to humans, allowing them to potentially detect subtle odor changes linked to depression.
  • Small studies provide some preliminary evidence that cats may be able to discriminate between odors from depressed and non-depressed individuals.
  • Proposed mechanisms include cats detecting hormonal changes, lowered hygiene, medication odors, and shifts in skin bacteria associated with depression.
  • Cat behaviors like clinginess, agitation, and gaze focus may indicate they recognize human depression.
  • While more research is needed, cats’ scent detection abilities mean it’s plausible they can smell depression in ways humans cannot.