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 modification:
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.