silviannnm-236118-unsplashCats 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.

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.

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:

Behavior Problem Medicine Type
General timidity SSRI, TCA
Litter box problems caused by anxiety BZ, TCA, SSRI
Urine marking BZ, TCA, SSRI
Aggression BZ, TCA, SSRI
Compulsive behavior, such as excessive grooming SSRI, TCA
Cognitive dysfunction MAOI

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.

Dose Effects – 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.
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.