In the past I have worked with cat owners (more often than not, these people are actually not even my own kitten clients) who are faced with behavioural issues ranging from a lack of socialization or shyness to peeing outside the litter box. I have written an article specifically about proven litter box training methods and litter box correctional training for those experiencing off-site peeing. I have also written an article about properly introducing a new kitten or cat to your home so that he becomes a confident, well adjusted member of the household. I have helped re-home cats from other breeders (I'm a bleeding heart - all cats deserve a second chance in my mind), who were peeing all over the house, or exhibiting other hard-to-live-with behaviours. I truly believe there are many ways to avoid or reduce a cat’s stress that do not include drugs. It is my opinion that ALL of these undesirable behaviours have their roots in stress.
Both of the articles mentioned above are aimed at reducing stress in the animal and calmly dealing with behaviours that may have arisen from poor kitten socializtion, improper initial introductions, or house training. Neither of these articles touches on medications however, (outside of natural pheromones or zylkene – milk protein – to help ease anxiety naturally).
All of that said, I have learned something new recently that is opening my eyes (and mind) to the potential value and effectiveness of drugs in certain situations. Some of this is due to recent conversations with pet owners and information they have been provided by their vets and some is due to my own research and a sudden recollection of my own past experience.
I had honestly never heard of the use of Paxil for a cat until just recently when a past kitten client wrote to me exclaiming how it has literally turned her life (and her cat’s life!) completely around over night. Her cat had been regularly peeing outside the litter box and with a new baby arriving, this had become understandably problematic. My first question after speaking with her was, “What IS Paxil??” Paxil (paroxetine) is an oral drug that is used for treating depression. It is in a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class that also contains fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), and sertraline (Zoloft). This sounds scary, I know. Basically, it has been shown that Paxil may help with an imbalance between neuroticism and extraversion. Neuroticism is characterized as being inclined to have negative emotions such as anxiety, hostility, self-consciousness, impulsivity, and sensitivity to stress. Extraversion refers to being inclined to have positive emotions, assertiveness, and gregariousness. Your cat may simply be “off balance” between these two emotions. Just as a person can be off balance, it stands to reason that so can an animal, right?
All of this still seemed hard for me to swallow when I was first looking into it. I mean, really, you would want to get to the root of the problem rather than mask it with a drug, correct? And would the poor cat have to be on this drug for life? What are the side effects?? I have always believed stress or negative emotions in the household are the root of nearly all poor behaviour exhibited by the reactive pet, and consequently these are what need to be addressed. After further reading and research however, I suddenly began to draw a connection to a personal experience in my immediate family. Why had I never made this connection before??? There might just be something to the use of Paxil for a stressed/reactive cat.
As a young child, our daughter presented with some difficult and disruptive behaviours. At first, we assumed she was simply “shy” and socially awkward. But then we realized that she was literally incapable of speaking anywhere outside of our home. We took her to doctors and therapists who all agreed she was extremely shy but gave us hope she would outgrow it in time and that nothing physical was wrong, so not to worry. As caring parents, we protected her from social situations and shielded her from the embarrassment of potty accidents (another reaction to her stress) by keeping her home from sleep overs, etc. After speaking to other parents, her issues seemed common enough – they assured us that these were just childhood issues that she would “grow out of” in time, as their children had.
Well, she didn’t grow out of them – any of them. Her anxiety and extreme shyness worsened and continued into her early teen years. We began to worry about how she could possibly ever manage in a world outside our home, where people would not know how to deal with her muteness or other physical issues related to the obvious stress she was experiencing. We began to feel helpless and eventually sought specialized psychiatric help for her.
After seeing two different psychiatrists, we were finally introduced to a wonderful woman who put a name what we had been dealing with our daughter’s entire life: Selective Mutism. The specific label and treatment plan that were given to us for our daughter are not of importance here. What is important is that at the beginning of her (successful!!) therapy, our daughter was given fluoxetine (Prozac). Like Paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine affects chemicals in the brain that may be unbalanced in people with depression, panic, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive symptoms. We were reluctant, but in order to work with this psychiatrist and her somewhat extreme therapeutic technique, it was a requirement.
Since we were assured that fluoxetine was needed ONLY at the beginning of her therapy, in order to reduce her stress enough to allow her to open up to the therapy and take part in her treatment plan, we agreed. Once her stress levels were reduced with the use of the fluoxetine, she opened up fully to the therapy (which included verbal social interaction with strangers in controlled settings, and other things which we never thought would ever be possible for our daughter!) and the medication was discontinued. This whole process took only a couple of months!
My thought is that perhaps a similar short-term drug protocol could be followed for cats and other pets who are having behavioural issues related to stress. What if adding Paxil to the processes outlined in my articles about litter box re-training and introduction of pets could work for those handful of situations that don’t respond successfully to the protocols? It could help families who are at their wit’s end and thinking the only available option is to surrender their cat. For some families, pets with extreme behavioural issues can cause stressful situations including arguing, and other serious family disruptions. In these situations, the pets nearly always suffer the worst imaginable consequences. What if a drug like Paxil could help alleviate the cat's bad (reactive) behaviour and offer some respite for a stressed family, allowing them to more successfully implement the necessary training/correction techniques? I am thinking that we often jump too quickly to rehome a “problem pet” without taking into full consideration the potential ramifications of uprooting and rehoming him. When considering the consequences that an abrupt change in domicile could have on the pet, doesn’t it seem important to first look into the potential short-term help of a drug like Paxil? For me, this definitely provides some food for thought if nothing else…. I will be discussing this more fully with my vet to get a better idea of side effects related to short and long term use and will provide more information as soon as I have it.