Treating Behavior Problems in Cats
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.
Which Medicines Are Best for What?
For the most part, four types of behavioral medicines are used to treat
behavior problems in cats. These medicines are benzodiazepines (BZs), monoamine
oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
The following table shows different cat behavior problems that have been
successfully treated with a combination of medicine and behavior
Litter box problems caused by anxiety
BZ, TCA, SSRI
BZ, TCA, SSRI
BZ, TCA, SSRI
Compulsive behavior, such as excessive grooming
Medicines for Treating Sudden Severe Fear, or Aggression
Just like antibiotics need to be taken for a while before they begin to
fight bacteria, most behavioral medications for cats need to be taken daily for
several weeks before they produce results. In situations where your cat is
acting aggressive at the slightest sight or smell of another cat or has some
other severe reaction to a fear of something else, a few weeks can be too long
to wait. Benzodiazepines (BZs) can reduce your cat’s reactivity immediately.
BZs produce results as soon as they’re taken, so they can treat fear or
aggression within a few hours.
Some common BZs are diazepam (Valium®), alprazolam
(Xanax®), chlordiazepoxide (Librium®), lorazepam
(Ativan®) and clonazepam (Klonopin®). BZs work by
increasing the activity of a chemical in the brain that interferes with
activation of the fear networks.
You can only know if a drug is working if you have an idea of what effects
to expect. The following list offers expected reactions in cats to different
doses of benzodiazepines:
- At low doses, BZs decrease the intensity of excessive behavior
and reduce excitability.
- Moderate to high doses of BZs can reduce anxiety and increase
playfulness, but they can also produce impaired movement and thinking,
including disorientation. BZs affect some of the same parts of the cells in a
cat’s brain as alcohol does in a human brain, and they produce similar effects.
High doses can produce increased restlessness and anxiety,
particularly when an animal is already stressed when given the medicine.
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.
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.