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How do you tell if your cat is unhappy?

As a responsible cat owner, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs that your feline friend is unhappy. While cats can’t speak our language, their behaviors and body language can tell you a lot about their mood and emotional states. Being attentive to changes in your cat’s habits and behavior is key to ensuring their health and wellbeing. Here are some tips on how to tell if your cat is unhappy and what you can do about it.

Changes in Appetite

One of the most telling signs that a cat is unhappy is a change in their appetite and eating habits. Healthy cats tend to be very food-motivated and excited to eat. If your cat suddenly starts eating less or loses interest in food, even their favorite treats, this could signal an underlying issue. Some things to look out for include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Disinterest in food
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

There are a few reasons why your cat may go off their food. Illnesses like dental disease, kidney problems, and cancer can cause a decreased appetite. But stress, anxiety, and depression can also lead a cat to stop eating. Try tempting your cat with different food types and flavors to stimulate their appetite again. If the behavior persists, have your vet examine them to rule out any medical causes.

Excessive Vocalization or Aggression

Cats can be quite vocal and communicate through meowing, purring, chirping, wailing, hissing, and growling. But excessive vocalization like nonstop meowing, yowling, or howling can signal anxiety, pain, or distress. Cats also occasionally act out with aggressive behaviors like biting, swatting, scratching, or swishing their tail when annoyed, frightened, or stressed. Watch for these behavioral changes that may suggest underlying unhappiness:

  • Excessive meowing or yowling, especially at night
  • Aggressive behaviors like biting or scratching
  • Swishing tail and acting irritable
  • Hissing, growling, or swatting more than usual

Try to identify what’s causing your cat stress. Reduce environmental stressors and make sure they have safe hiding spots. Increase playtime and interaction to boost their mood. You can also talk to your vet about trying synthetic pheromone diffusers or supplements to relieve anxiety in stressed cats.

Changes in Grooming Habits

Cats are naturally fastidious groomers and typically spend 30-50% of their day grooming themselves. Their routines involve licking their coats, paws, and genital areas along with rubbing their face and scratching. If you notice a decline in your cat’s normal grooming habits, it may signify:

  • Lethargy or depression
  • Dental or joint pain
  • Obesity limiting their flexibility
  • Stress

Look for dull, matted fur, greasy coats, and flaky skin instead of their usual polished sheen. Lack of grooming can also cause hairballs, parasites, and skin irritations. Identifying the cause is key – your vet can check for underlying medical issues causing discomfort. In the meantime, help groom your cat more with regular brushing and baths if needed.

Hiding and Withdrawing

As prey animals programmed to avoid danger, cats are very sensitive to anything in their territory that makes them feel unsafe. A cat that suddenly starts hiding more often or withdrawing from social interaction is likely feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed by their environment. Signs to look out for include:

  • Spending more time under beds or behind furniture
  • Avoiding areas with loud noises or too much commotion
  • Not greeting family members at the door anymore
  • Refusing to sit in your lap or interact as usual

Try to minimize loud noises, chaos, and strangers in your home to help your cat feel secure again. Make sure they have safe hiding places, shelves, and cat trees to retreat to. Using calming pheromone diffusers can also help relieve stress and encourage social interaction again.

Changes in Sleep Patterns

Cats need 12-16 hours of daily sleep split between nighttime slumber and daytime cat naps. Disruptions to their normal sleep cycles or difficulty falling asleep can point to an unsettled cat. Here are some sleep pattern changes to watch for:

  • Restlessness or difficulty settling at night
  • Frequent waking and roaming at night
  • Sleeping more during the day
  • Changes in favorite sleep spots

Anxiety, hunger, pain, and illness are common causes of sleep issues in cats. Make sure your cat feels safe and comfortable in their sleeping environment. Stick to a regular feeding schedule. Visit your vet if nighttime restlessness persists to identify potential health issues.

House Soiling or Litter Box Issues

Most cats are obsessed with using a clean litter box. When properly socialized, they will go to great lengths to eliminate waste in the box and bury their feces. If your cat is suddenly missing the box, inappropriately urinating or defecating around your home, or refusing to use the litter box at all, this points to an underlying issue. Potential causes include:

  • Illness like urinary tract infections or diarrhea
  • Pain that makes getting to the box difficult
  • Anxiety or stress
  • A dirty or incorrectly placed litter box
  • Dislike of litter substrate or scented litters

Make sure your cat’s litter box setup meets their needs – clean, easy to access, private location, and litter type they prefer. Take them to the vet to check for medical issues. Try calming pheromone diffusers to ease stress. Place additional litter boxes around your home.

Excessive Self-Grooming and Over-Licking

Frequent and excessive self-grooming beyond the normal meticulous cleaning can signal an unhappy cat. Over-licking that leads to bald spots, irritation, and skin damage is worrisome. Possible causes include:

  • Allergies, parasitic infections, or skin conditions causing discomfort
  • Joint pain or reduced mobility making grooming difficult
  • Stress, anxiety, or boredom
  • Cognitive decline or neurological issues in senior cats

Look for bald patches, scabs, hot spots, and excessive scratching or chewing at the skin. Visit the vet to diagnose and treat any underlying medical cause. For stress or boredom relief, increase interactive playtime and environmental enrichment with puzzles, toys, catnip etc. Synthetic pheromone diffusers can also help relax over-groomers.

Signs of Depression

Like humans, cats can experience feelings of sadness, grief, and loss that lead to depression. Traumatic events like the loss of a companion animal or owner, change in environment, neglect, or abuse can cause cats to exhibit signs of depression including:

  • Withdrawing from social interaction
  • Sleeping more and low activity
  • Loss of interest in toys, play, or food
  • Poor grooming
  • Excessive vocalization like meowing for attention

Be patient, keep routines consistent, and make time for gentle interaction. Engage them with stimulating toys and puzzles. Introduce new enrichment like catnip. Once their mood improves, slowly reintroduce playmates or changes to their environment. Seek help from your vet if depression lingers.

Unkempt Coat and Matted Fur

A naturally fastidious cat that starts neglecting their coat grooming likely isn’t feeling well. Significant tangles, mats, greasy fur, and a dried coat can have many causes including:

  • Dental disease or mouth pain
  • Obesity or limited flexibility
  • Skin conditions, parasites, allergies
  • Joint pain and reduced mobility
  • Cognitive issues in senior cats

Gently brush or comb mats loose, trim away excess fur if needed. Check for skin irritations. Have your vet examine your cat to identify factors causing grooming issues. Address dental disease, get parasite treatments, or try joint supplements as needed. Help keep your cat’s coat tidy if they need extra care.


Cats thrive on feeling safe, comfortable, and in control of their territory. When those needs aren’t met, the signs quickly manifest in their behaviors, appetite, litter box habits, sleep, grooming, and interactions. By staying observant of changes in your cat’s normal routines and addressing problems early, you can help uncover issues and get them back to a happier state again. With some adjustments to their environment, enrichment routines, and health treatments if needed, your beloved feline will be back to their content self in no time.