As exercise alleviates depression in people why do we allow indoor cats to be inactive all day?

You probably know this already. Exercise helps to alleviate depression. Going outside and walking within a natural landscape is also good to lift one’s mood. If you don’t know that already then you do now! And if you are cynical and don’t believe it, you haven’t got to go far online to confirm that what I’ve said is correct. You don’t even have to do that. Just go outside into the countryside and walk a little bit. When you return home, you’ll feel better.

A shot of endorphins helps me get through my day. What about domestic cats?
A shot of endorphins helps me get through my day. What about domestic cats? Infographic by MikeB.
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Exercise releases feel-good chemicals

How does exercise help depression and anxiety? Well, it releases those feel-good endorphins which the experts sometimes refer to as “natural cannabis-like brain chemicals”. A more scientific name is ‘endogenous cannabinoids’. Our brains also release dopamine which achieves a similar effect.

Do cat’s brains release dopamine and endogenous cannabinoids? Apparently, the cannabinoid system modulates dopamine release. Interested? A little bit too scientific perhaps but it doesn’t matter because the message is simple: exercise releases feel-good chemicals into the brain. Walking within nature, say a forest, produces a similar effect. This is because humans should be connected to nature because we are species that come from nature.

Do cats’ brains release the same chemicals?

Do cats’ brains release the same sort of feel-good chemicals under the same circumstances? It’s funny because when you search for answers to that question, Google throws up answers to a similar but entirely different question namely whether the act of petting your cat releases feelgood chemicals into the brain of humans. For completeness, the act of petting your cat releases oxytocin which is called the cuddle chemical and makes you feel less stressed. But I don’t want to go down that path right now.

Feline inactivity leads to low mood

I want to know what’s happening inside the cat’s brain when they are exercising and the counterpoint to that is, what is happening to their brain when they are killing time snoozing for 15 hours or more a day. Do they get depressed or at least is their mood suppressed? Because I think it is.

I’m going to need some help because my extensive searches to find out whether cat brain chemistry includes endogenous cannabinoids have drawn a blank. Every time the answers focus on humans and how cats improve the brain chemistry of humans. Google is a very human-centric search engine.

And if I presume that there is nothing on this topic, a very important topic, I think that humans are being remiss. I did search Google Scholar and found nothing on there either.

Feline mood suppression is under the radar

But let’s, for the time being, presume that cats do feel better when they exercise and that their mood is depressed when they don’t (for long periods), it is another good reason to do more to energise and exercise a full-time indoor cat.

It is entirely plausible that millions of domestic cats suffer low mood because they are confined to the home and their owner doesn’t know about it. The problem is this: we get used to cats just lying around snoozing, doing their thing, being bored. We think it’s normal cat behaviour. I don’t think it is.

Take a small wild cat species such as the black-footed cat. This cat is about half the size of the domestic cat and yet it hunts all night catching prey every hour on the hour and can walk about 10 miles every night! The black-footed cat is happier than the average domestic cat!

And the ancestor to the domestic cat, the North African wildcat, is going to be far more active than the domestic cat because they have to hunt to eat to survive. Are we inadvertently lowering the mood of our cats across the planet in their tens of millions simply because we don’t exercise them enough which would mean playing with them a lot more.

Competing interests

Or – and this is provocative – allow them to go outside to hunt. That’s what makes them happy. We don’t want to do it because we get frightened about their safety and many people are conservationists at heart.

There are competing interests. However, at the end of the day we have a responsibility to our domestic cat companions to ensure that they are as happy as possible. I would recommend that the least people can do for their full-time indoor cat is to build a decent enclosure attached to the house or even a modest catio, something to allow them to experience the outside and become excited to release those endogenous cannabinoids which are so precious to happiness.

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