Continued The most effective approach to treating a behavior problem in a cat is behavior modification. Behavior modification plans designed by knowledgeable, qualified professionals treat a problem behavior by: Changing the cat’s perception of a situation or thing Changing the consequences of the cat’s behavior Giving the cat an acceptable outlet for her natural behavior or an acceptable behavior to do instead of the problem behavior Using a combination of these solutions Unfortunately, behavior modification can prove difficult in some situations. For example, natural cat behavior is sometimes at odds with a cat’s environment. Many modern households have multiple cats. But cats are solitary hunters, and although they sometimes get along, it’s also normal for them to avoid each other. Because living together isn’t natural for them, it’s sometimes necessary to help cats in a single household learn to accept each other. This can be accomplished through a kind of behavior modification procedure called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). Sometimes, however, cats are so excited and upset by the sight and smell of each other that DSCC isn’t possible. In these cases, behavioral medication can reduce the cats’ reactivity to each other enough so that DSCC can be carried out successfully. Can You Use Medication Instead of Behavior Modification? Behavioral medication alone isn’t usually enough to resolve behavior problems. Medication serves to reduce the emotional part of a situation, but it doesn’t resolve the behavioral component. Once medication gets your cat’s emotional reactions under better control, behavior modification can be used to change her behavior. For instance, if your cat is afraid of another cat in your home, she might not use the litter box because of her fear. Medication can help your cat be less reactive to the other cat-but it won’t help her learn to use the litter box again.
Continued Side Effects Benzodiazepines can increase appetite and sleeplessness. They can also interfere with learning and memory, so they aren’t good choices for long-term use with DSCC. Health Issues Benzodiazepines are metabolized in the liver and excreted through the kidneys of a cat, so if your veterinarian advises you to treat your cat with BZs, he should check your cat’s liver and kidney function with a simple blood test. If your cat has had problems with her kidneys or liver in the past, be sure to let your veterinarian know. Medicines for Treating Ongoing Behavior Problems Behavior problems that involve day-to-day household issues, such as problems between multiple cats within a household, or ongoing problems, such as excessive grooming, are best treated with medicines that are given long term, such as TCAs, MAOIs and SSRIs. Tricyclic Antidepressants Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were first used to treat depression in people. They work primarily by increasing serotonin and norepinephrin-two neurotransmitters that are involved in regulation of emotional activity. They also affect other neurochemicals involved in emotional reactivity. The TCAs prescribed most for cats are amitriptyline (Elavil® or Tryptanol), clomipramine (Anafranil® or Clomicalm®), doxepin (Aponal®), imipramine (Antideprin or Deprenil), desipramine (Norpramin® or Pertofrane) and nortriptyline (Sensoval). Every cat is unique behaviorally and physiologically, so while one TCA might not work well for your cat, another TCA could have excellent results. Although TCAs were originally intended to treat depression in people, they can also reduce anxiety, manage compulsive behavior and help people with anger problems. They’ve been used successfully in cats to help treat compulsive behavior problems like excessive grooming, reduce reactivity to other cats in the household and treat anxiety problems. Dosage Schedule TCAs are prescribed for use every day. If the medicine isn’t taken every day, it won’t work to treat the behavior problem. TCAs are not usually effective the first day-or even the first few days-that they’re taken. Because at least some of their effectiveness comes from the changes they make to the brain, TCAs must be taken for at least two to three weeks before they produce results. Treatment should continue for at least two months before a decision is made regarding the success of the drug.
Cats are considered perfect pets by many people because they’re relatively self-sufficient. If we provide a few basics-like a clean litter box, fresh water and access to nutritious food-they share our lives without demanding constant care. However, this same benefit can sometimes create problems when things go awry. When a cat develops a behavior problem, pet parents are often at a loss as to how to solve it. As with dogs, many behavior problems in cats can be resolved with a change in management of your pet or your pet’s environment. For instance, litter box problems can often be dealt with by changing the presentation of the box, the litter or other factors associated with use of the box. (For a complete discussion of litter box problems and how to resolve them, please see our article on Litter Box Problems.) Problematic scratching can be fixed by providing suitable scratching surfaces for your cat (please see our article, Scratching), and overly rambunctious play can be channeled into appropriate activities (please see our articles, Cats Who Play Rough and Nighttime Activity in Cats). However, sometimes cats develop behavior problems that pet parents can’t reduce or resolve. For instance, problems may develop between multiple cats in a household, or a cat might stop using her litter box because of a physical problem that’s no longer even bothering her, or a cat might groom herself excessively, to the point of pulling all her hair out. When behavior problems like these develop in cats, help is available from qualified professional animal behavior experts, such as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAAB or ACAAB) or board-certified veterinary behaviorists (Dip ACVB). After reviewing the specifics of your cat’s behavior problem and all the factors that influence it, a behaviorist can design a successful behavior modification plan to resolve the problem. In some cases, a behavior problem can be treated most successfully with a combination of behavior modification and behavioral medication. Is Medication Necessary? You might be reluctant to give your cat behavioral medication and prefer to find a solution that focuses on behavior modification or a change in your cat’s environment. However, keep in mind that some problems can be resolved more quickly-and with less distress to both you and your cat-if medication is added to the treatment plan.
I love cats. I live with two: Mama Cat and Major Tom Cat. I’ve also spent years on antidepressants and over-prescribed benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, etc. for all you non-pillheads), but after successfully weaning myself off those addictive fuckers I now rely on natural substances for relaxation. A history of pharmaceuticals plus the ownership of multiple felines does indeed equal one crazy cat lady.
Continued Health Issues TCAs are metabolized in the liver and excreted through the kidneys of a cat, so if your veterinarian advises you to treat your cat’s behavior problem with a TCA, he should give your cat a simple blood test to make sure these organs are working well before beginning treatment. If your cat has had problems with her kidneys or liver, be sure to let your veterinarian know. It’s recommended that a recheck blood test be done every year (twice a year for older cats) to ensure that the medicine hasn’t damaged the liver or kidneys. TCAs should not be used with MAOIs because the combination of these two types of drugs can increase serotonin to unhealthy levels. Side Effects TCAs can increase water retention, and water retention produces dry mouth. As a result, some cats might foam at the mouth, and they might also be extra thirsty. Because they’re thirsty, they might drink extra water. Water retention can also lead to constipation and even diarrhea. All of these effects can lead to house-soiling problems. TCAs can also cause a sudden increase in heart rate. Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) work on similar neurotransmitters as TCAs, but they work differently and with less selectivity, so they have a more general effect on the brain. Selegiline (Anipryl®) is an MAOI that seems to mostly affect the neutrotransmitter dopamine. It’s used to treat cognitive dysfunction in older cats, and studies indicate that it can slow aging of the brain. Health Issues Some MAOIs can have dangerous side effects when cheese is eaten. Selegiline doesn’t fall into this category, but because some humans have reactions to cheese when taking it, pet parents should avoid giving their cat cheese when she’s taking selegiline. MAOIs should not be used with SSRIs because the combination of these two types of drugs can increase serotonin to unhealthy levels. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors SSRIs affect the brain chemical called serotonin. Common SSRIs are fluoxetine (Reconcile® or Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®) and sertraline (Zoloft®).
Behavioral medication alone isn’t usually enough to resolve behavior problems. Medication serves to reduce the emotional part of a situation, but it doesn’t resolve the behavioral component. Once medication gets your cat’s emotional reactions under better control, behavior modification can be used to change her behavior. For instance, if your cat is afraid of another cat in your home, she might not use the litter box because of her fear. Medication can help your cat be less reactive to the other cat-but it won’t help her learn to use the litter box again.
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