I love having the chance to weigh in from my holistic veterinary perspective on a variety of topics, including those that are sometimes controversial. Recently, I weighed on depression in cats and the use of medications to manage feline behavioral issues for Vice.com in Pill-Popping Kitties: Inside the Pharmaceutical Treatment of Depressed and Anxious Cats.
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.
A few weeks ago I had a beautiful nymph with a nose ring standing in my kitchen. As I poured food for Mama and Tom, she told me about her professional cat-sitting days in college. Often she had to crumble antidepressants and Xanax into the kitties' food. It was important that the cats didn't miss a dose or else they would withdraw. Turns out, there are cats out there who have experienced the same pill dependency as me.
As watched Mama and Tom lick each other's butts, I decided to learn more about kitty pharmaceuticals. I spoke with Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a holistic veterinarian specializing in acupuncture/pain management, to learn more about depressed cats and how he would treat them.
VICE: Can cats really get depressed like humans do?
Dr. Patrick Mahaney: Sure. A common experience that can make animals depressed is when they lose one of their partners. Another animal in the house dies, and they'll get depressed. Sometimes it leads to real health problems; I don't recommend just throwing tricyclic antidepressants at everything. [Doctors] can try to do behavior modification with animals that are depressed, where we spend time socializing them. If it's a cat, you can still get them out and about by putting a leash on them and walking around.
You mentioned the death of an animal partner. My mom's cat Gomez just died, and now his sister, Matilda, is all alone. What else could be triggers for depression?
A kid goes away to college or someone gets divorced, or even when there's relationship problems or financial problems. Your pets can sense your behavior.
What are the downsides of medicating your pet with an antidepressant?
There's a high level of side effects associated with these medications. There could be a sedative or lethargic effect, or they won't have as much energy as a result of the medication so they may not eat as well as they should. Or there could even be vomiting or diarrhea as a result. That's why it's very important that we have a baseline of what's going on in the body as a result of medication.
Are there specific antidepressants for cats or do they take the same brand names as humans?
There are actually. There are veterinary-specific medications that help animals. There is a drug that is called Clomipramine and there's a veterinary medicine of it called Clomicalm, and that's for things like separation anxiety. But there are other pets that for separation anxiety that will take a drug just like people take which is Fluoxetine, also known as Prozac.
How long do cats usually stay on this stuff?
They could actually be on it for life. It depends on the situation that causes the anxiety and how it can be resolved. If they're constantly under stress in the home environment, and we're not addressing that, they might need to be on medication for life. I [treat] a dog that has separation anxiety and has to take a version of Prozac. We also use acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
What is some depressed body language to watch for?
Your cat could be sleeping more. Instead of coming and greeting you, your cat might start hiding in a secluded spot, perhaps in a closet or under a bed. They might not walk around as much; they could spend a lot of time lying down. We could see appetite changes where they start to refuse their food. Especially with cats, if they start losing weight, there could be an underlying problem like kidney stones or cancer or liver failure.
Could a cat develop a pill addiction like humans could?
Well, they're probably not going to be able to open the bottle as easily. Probably not, but that's why they always want to use our medicine responsibly. Collaborate with your vet to make sure your pet is showing a response. Pets can't dose themselves like people would.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Thank you for reading this article. Your questions and comments are completely welcome. Please feel free to communicate with me through Twitter (@PatrickMahaney) and follow my adventures in veterinary medicine by liking Patrick Mahaney: Veterinarian Acupuncture Pain Management for Your Pets on Facebook. Copyright of this article (2016) is owned by Dr Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.