Should You Put Your Cat on Medication?

Dr. O'Brien and Tuna

Dr. O'Brien and Tuna

Today’s guest post by Dr. Anna O’Brien explores the option of anti-anxiety medications to help cats’ behavioral problems. Dr. O’Brien has first hand experience with her own cat, Tuna, who is currently on Prozac. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the topic!

When to Put Your Cat on Prozac
by Anna O’Brien, DVM

“Kitty Prozac” is currently a hot topic in the veterinary and animal behavioral communities. Often seen as a last resort, medicating our pets to alter their behavioral status may seem to some people as an “easy out” to fixing complex behavioral problems. However, understanding the basis of these problems helps illustrate why sometimes medication may be the only solution, especially when the last resort may lead to pet relinquishment.

With any new behavioral problem, first take your cat for a thorough medical evaluation. Next, assess litter type and litter box size, placement, location, and number to see if changes there might solve the problem. You can also try other behavior modifications such as pheromones. If you are still unable to prevent your cat from engaging in inappropriate elimination, you are dealing with what is called a “learned aversion.” This means that although there may be nothing wrong with the litter box situation, your cat has come to associate elimination in the litter box with negative experiences, be it pain or other types of stressors. In order to circumnavigate this learned aversion, anxiolytics (medications which decrease anxiety, such as Prozac) can help immensely.

Currently, fluoxetine (the drug name for the trade name Prozac) is available on the veterinary market for use with dogs to help manage separation anxiety (under the brand name Reconcile) and veterinarians have begun using this drug to manage feline elimination problems as well. This drug can be used for a range of cat behavior issues, from urine spraying to defecating outside the box.

Fluoxetine increases serotonin levels in the central nervous system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in facilitating social interactions, coping mechanisms, and adaptability. Absorbed extremely well orally, this drug is administered to cats most commonly in pill form. This medication is also available through compounding pharmacies as a transdermal application.

It usually takes a few weeks to a month on this medication before an owner begins to see corrections in litter box behavior, since the onset of this drug’s action can be slow. Some cats can gradually be weaned off the drug after four to six months. Others seem to need to be on it for the remainder of their lives.

Fluoxetine is a prescription drug and should only be prescribed and purchased through your veterinarian. The most common side effects reported in cats taking fluoxetine are lethargy and anorexia, and to a lesser extent hyperactivity, irritability, and other behavioral changes. If you’ve started your cat on medication and begin to see side effects, note their duration and severity and talk to your veterinarian. In some instances a re-calculation of the dose may be required, while other times, cessation of the drug may be warranted.

There are a handful of other drugs on the human pharmaceutical market that are sometimes used for feline behavioral problems, drugs such as the tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine and diazepam (Valium). Your veterinarian can help decide which is the most appropriate choice for your cat, while working closely with you to help solve this problem.

Anna O’Brien is a veterinarian in central Maryland. In addition to her practice, she also volunteers her time at local animal shelters, working with cats and dogs awaiting adoption. Currently, she shares her home with a Lab mix named Shadow and three cats: Tuna, Scabs, and Amber. Tuna himself is currently on Prozac for reasons Anna doesn’t want to embarrass him about. In her spare time, Anna writes on various veterinary topics. Visit her weekly online column “The Hoof Beat”, follow her on Twitter or visit her web site.