My cat Friskie and I have a tight bond, so I knew he’d have a hard time once my son was born. But I had no idea these adjustments would cause him to spiral into something like depression.
Before becoming a mother, I enjoyed spending time with my fur baby, a Lynx Point Siamese cat named Friskie, with gorgeous blue eyes. We’d cuddle together, and he often curled up on my lap.
He was no ordinary cat. He liked to fetch, the traditional “dog” way. I'd throw a ball and he’d retrieved it.
My baby was born when my husband and I were living in Colorado with my mom. When we returned from the hospital, Friskie was immediately upset. To express his discontent with this new “intruder,” he peed on our son’s baby blankets.
Sure, it was annoying, but I chalked it up to a cat marking his territory. My son wasn’t a cat, but I knew Friskie had a soft spot in him. He’d come around, I thought. He could adapt. I’d seen that part of him when we adopted our younger cat, Fragile. Friskie warmed up to her right away.
The start of symptoms that changed our life
But the peeing didn’t stop. Friskie began urinating on the carpets, couches, and on our bed.
We finally took him to the vet, and he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. The doctor gave Friskie an antibiotic, reassuring us that he’d feel better quickly. Having a solution made me feel hopeful, but that hope was temporary.
Even after the infection cleared, Friskie continued peeing everywhere.
We got worried he was sick again and returned to the vet for more tests. The test results showed that his physical health was fine, so our vet recommended tackling the pee problem with behavior management. She suggested using different cat litter, moving the litter box, and using a spray deterrent on the furniture. So we bought new litter boxes, different litter, and moved the box.
But Friskie still peed everywhere. Because things weren’t improving, I began to wonder if his problem wasn’t physical or behavioral in the traditional sense but psychological? What if my cat was depressed?
A sad cat, not a 'bad' cat
Most people say animals can’t become despondent. Sure, a depression diagnosis for your pet won’t be the same, or ever as conclusive, as talking to a person. But at the same time, how often do we say “I’m fine,” and not mean it?
That’s where it comes to trust and my relationship with Friskie. I had a certain bond with Friskie. Because I’ve struggled with depression too, I know how a stressful life can trigger feelings of worry and sadness.
From my experience, depression is often biological. The brain of someone who’s depressed is thought to not produce enough ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters, and medicine gives the brain a boost. I wondered if it could be the same for my cat.
My mom recommended that I ask the vet about prescribing Friskie antidepressants, since our litter changes hadn’t worked. But the vet refused to prescribe this medicine and chalked his antics up to behavioral issues. Instead of a sad cat, she called him a bad cat.
I definitely didn’t believe that Friskie was ‘bad,’ but I also felt like I should trust that the vet knew best. So I dropped the conversation about prescribing Friskie antidepressants and I followed her advice of trying different cat litter and getting additional litter boxes to place around the house.
More adjustments and added stress for Friskie
During our son’s first year of life, Friskie also had to cope with another huge adjustment. We moved from my mom’s house into our own apartment, which didn’t allow pets.
Friskie stayed with my mom. I knew my mom would give him tons of love and affection, which I hoped might help lift Friskie out of his sadness.
While I missed him, I thought he’d enjoy living in a quieter environment. But the opposite happened, especially when my mom adopted two dogs.
Friskie continued peeing in the house. He ruined my mom’s chairs and carpets, adding more and more stress. In March of 2013, my husband got hired as an air traffic controller in Houston. My mom loves him, but it was a great relief for her when we took Friskie with us.
At first, the move to Houston was a positive change for Friskie. For a year, he didn’t pee outside of the litter box. He returned to his happy, friendly self. Finally, I felt like I had my old cat back.
But then the peeing began again.
I took Friskie to a new vet in Houston. Once again, I explained that Friskie had been peeing outside of the box for years. I told him that we’d tried all of the behavioral tricks that our previous vet had recommended.
This time, our new vet agreed with me that Friskie showed signs of what could be depression in an animal.
The vet prescribed fluoxetine, and it worked for Friskie. Friskie stopped peeing all over the place. He became the happy, playful, and affectionate cat I’d always known.
This journey with Friskie still has its ups and downs
My husband wonders why I’m so devoted to this difficult cat. My own journey with depression helps me empathize with Friskie. I can feel his plight, because I've felt blue, too. And whenever I’ve had a hard day, he curls up next to me. We’re two peas in a pod.
Sometimes I wonder if we’re so connected that my mood affects his behavior. When I'm having a rough day, he pees outside of his litter box more often. Sometimes I get frustrated and ask, “Why are you doing this to me today?”
But even when I’m mad at him, Friskie responds with love and affection. He rubs up against me, purring and meowing. It’s like he’s apologizing. I can’t stay angry with him. I know there’s something going on inside his head that we don’t fully understand.
Our house flooded in 2014, and again in 2015. During this time, Friskie’s inappropriate urination got worse. We were stuck in our rental home because we couldn’t afford to move out. Friskie fed off the negative energy in the house.
The stress peaked again in 2015 when I gave birth to my second baby and we moved into a new house. Friskie was an emotional wreck, but so was I.
Why I’ll never give up on Friskie
Friskie is peeing all over the house again. Right now, we can’t even let him out of the bathroom or he will urinate all over the furniture, carpets, and even our bed.
Despite this uphill battle, Friskie has never been unkind to my sons. The boys have been raised with cats and so they know how to treat them. I’m thankful there isn’t any animosity between Friskie and the boys.
Over the years, I’ve learned that Friskie is hypersensitive to change and that sometimes it’s one-step forward and two-steps back with him. A good day is when he doesn’t pee outside of the box.
Right now, we have him on new medication and I’m crossing my fingers that he responds well, so that he can leave the bathroom and re-join the family.
People might not understand why I’ve worked so hard to understand and care for Friskie. But I have deep compassion for him because I’m also working through my own depression. I know how important support is when you’re having a difficult time.
Friskie and I have weathered hard times together. We’re both still struggling to find that balance, but we’ll get there together.
Even though people may think of my cat as a nuisance, they would never tell me to give up on a friend or a family member who’s going through depression. If this were happening to my children, no one would recommend that I walk away from them.
Friskie may not be human, but he’s a part of our family. And I’m not giving up on him.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from the University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all of her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. You can follow her on Twitter @dr_fraga.