When cat owners face behavior problems, such as litter-box avoidance or aggression, changes to the cat’s routine and various training techniques are usually suggested. However, there are times when behavior modification techniques are not enough. They fail to work because the cat, either due to its genetically-encoded temperament, or due to life circumstances that cannot be changed, is simply too high-strung.
Psychiatric drugs, and specifically anti-anxiety medication, can help put the cat at ease. Sometimes that alone can stop unwanted behaviors. Other times, medications set the stage for the cat to respond to behavioral therapy.
The information provided here is not intended to replace veterinary advice, but to give you some understanding of the common psychiatric drugs prescribed for cats. Your vet should always be an active party in any behavioral therapy, preferably alongside a certified cat behaviorist..
Drugs for Immediate Anxiety Relief in Cats
In cases of severe aggression, your vet is likely to suggest a quick fix using one of the drugs in the Benzodiazepine group . Benzodiazepines offer immediate relief for sudden onset of panic and fear, the driving forces behind feline aggression. Benzodiazepines take effect within hours of being administered, calming down the cat, sometimes to the point of becoming sleepy. These drugs are not recommended for long-term use, but they do offer a first line of defense. They are often used alongside long-term drugs, to ease the beginning of the treatment.
Common drugs in this family are diazepam (Valium®), alprazolam (Xanax®), and lorazepam (Ativan®).
Long-term Anti-Anxiety Drugs for Cats
Much like people, some cats require long-term drug intervention to help them deal with stress and anxiety. These cats develop behavior problems that are difficult to treat without medication to lower their stress levels. Ongoing litter-box problems, aggression, and obsessive grooming are just a few of the problems that can be helped by these drugs. In many cases, a combination of psychiatric drug therapy and behavioral modification techniques is needed.
The medication works by increasing the levels of some neurotransmitters in the cat's brain, usually serotonin and sometimes norepinephrin as well. This is a gradual process and its effect is felt within weeks, not hours or days. In fact, it may take several months before the results of the treatment can be evaluated.
There are three types of long-term anti-anxiety drugs -
1. Tricyclic antidepressants or TCAs. Common TCAs that are often prescribed for cats include amitriptyline (Elavil® or Tryptanol), clomipramine (Anafranil® or Clomicalm®), doxepin (Aponal®), imipramine (Antideprin or Deprenil), and nortriptyline (Sensoval).
2. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs. They include fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®) and sertraline (Zoloft®).
3. Serotonin (5-HT) Agonists. The only drug in this family commonly used on cats is Buspirone. Buspirone is a common choice to treat spraying and litter-box issues and it’s often used in combination with other long-term psychiatric drugs for added effect.
Like any medication, some of these drugs can have immediate or long-term side-effects.
Benzodiazepines can induce increased appetite and sleepiness. In high dosages, they can affect the cat’s sense of balance and make her appear dizzy or disoriented.
TCAs can cause water retention, inducing excessive drinking and sometimes foaming at the mouth.
Feralvr’s Pipsqueak had stress-induced bladder issues: “We started him on Elavil (Amitriptyline) 10 mg. per day to start. It definitely calmed his bladder as he was not running to the litter box constantly. He was able to retain his urine longer giving his bladder time to settle. The downside to me was that my Pip was really not himself during that time but I realized that he needed this for the time being. We did cut him down to 5 mg. and that allowed him to be more like himself but without the drowsiness. He was on it for about three months and then we took him off the drug. Things were miraculously improved even off of the drug as far as his bladder was concerned. My Pip was back and took on his roll of house guardian once again.”
These medications are processed by the liver and kidneys. Your vet should check liver and kidney functions before prescribing them and at regular intervals during the course of treatment.
Choice of Drug and Dosage Issues
Finding the right psychiatric drug can be a challenge. Some cats may respond well to one drug, but not to another. What’s more, getting the dosage right can be tricky too. This is not an exact science and you need to work closely with your vet, reporting results as well as side-effects, in order to fine-tune the treatment and get the best results. In other words, be prepared for a potentially long, and sometimes confusing, journey.
Length of Treatment
Length of treatment depends on the specific problem. When using long-term medication, a few months is usually the minimum for the drug to take full effect. Once the original problem has been addressed, should the cat stay on anti-anxiety medication for life? There is no single answer to this question. Many times your vet sill suggest to wean the cat off the medication, but if the problem recurs, your cat may need to go back on the medication for good.
Lesliecat shared a positive experience, where the cat was successfully treated and was taken off the medication: "Several years ago I brought a new cat home. Everyone acclimated pretty well except for one cat. She started stalking the new cat. She would corner it and beat up up on it. I put her on Prozac (can't remember the dosage) and what a difference. She no longer paid any attention to the new cat. She did not sleep any extra and ate normally. After a few months I took her off the Prozac. Her behavior continued to be good towards the other cat."
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