No, You’re Not a Failure If You Give Your Cat a Psychotropic Medication

Why choosing a drug to address a feline’s anxiety might be the right step to take.


Things that indicate your cat has been sent over the edge: hostile behavior toward another animal in the house that intends no harm; nervousness about being left alone for a few hours that leaves your pet meowing and miserable in your absence even though you come home every single time; thunder that has your pet diving for cover under a bed or couch. Cats, like people, develop all kinds of anxiety disorders that cause over-the-top, maladaptive reactions.

A conscientious owner works to relieve the cat of the anxiety, perhaps with the help of a veterinary behaviorist who will suggest ways to try to gradually desensitize the feline. For instance, maybe someone with a cat who is afraid of another pet and acts aggressively to defend herself (even though there’s no need) will be advised to keep the cat separate from the other animal for a while and then give her  some of the other pet’s toys to sniff. Interactions can proceed gingerly from there.

But sometimes, an anti-anxiety drug — a psychotropic — may be in order to help a cat get over the hump and be able to calm down enough to make the gradual adjustment.

People often resist. They worry about “drugging” their cat. But when a cat owner administers a psychotropic medication to her cat such as an SSRI because other methods to calm her down are not enough on their own, she’s doing everything she can to help her pet reach a state of emotional stability. She’s being the best cat “parent” she can be.

Herein, a few of the reasons people cite for worrying about giving their cat a mood-stabilizing drug — and why they don’t stand up.

1. She won’t be my cat anymore. Her personality will change. When an anxious cat can’t control her behavior, she is not the cat she is supposed to be. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, who leads the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, says, “When I use a psychoactive medication such as an antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug, I want it to help reveal the cat’s personality underneath a blanket of anxiety and fear. You use a medication to lose the problem and keep the cat. You don’t want to lose the cat.”

2. If I give my cat a drug, it means I’m a failure because I wasn’t able to get behavior modification to work. “I used to tell people that I was prescribing a drug as a last resort, if behavior modification didn’t work on its own,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “I don’t do that anymore. It kind of implies that you use a drug when behavior modification fails rather than as a tool to help you help your pet through a behavior modification protocol. It also leads some people to give up on behavior modification, as if they could switch out one approach for another. But you can’t. Behavior modification always has to be in the mix. The medicine simply facilitates it by ratcheting down a cat’s anxiety or fear enough that she can attend to her owner’s cues. “You can’t learn when you’re panicking,” the doctor notes.

Deciding on a drug certainly has nothing to do with an owner’s not trying hard enough, or not being good enough at helping a cat, Dr. Borns-Weil adds. In fact, she says, sometimes a drug is prescribed right up front with the behavioral modification suggestions. It’s clear a cat won’t be able to cope otherwise.

3. If I start my cat on a mood-altering drug, she’ll never be able to go off it. In some cases that may very well be true. But so what? If a cat is calmer and feels more secure with the lowest dose of medication that’s going to help — “and I’m always tweaking the dose to give a cat the least amount possible,” Dr. Borns-Weil says — why is it then important to discontinue it? If a person with ongoing morbid depression felt better and was more functional taking an antidepressant drug, would you take the drug away and let the person remain miserable just because of a faulty notion that the problem should be “cured” with only short-term use of pharmaceuticals?

Bottom line: If the veterinarian recommends a mood-stabilizing drug for a behavior problem whose grip won’t lessen with behavioral strategies alone, it may very well be worth adding to your arsenal of ways to help your pet.


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