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Why I feed my cat antidepressants

By Katie Walmsley, CNN
March 10, 2013 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Katie Walmsley said her cat, Minou, used to succumb to illnesses every time she and her husband went away. Katie Walmsley said her cat, Minou, used to succumb to illnesses every time she and her husband went away.
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From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Katie Walmsley: I was advised to give my cat antidepressants after she had recurrent illnesses
  • Walmsley: Antidepressants were a last resort, after antibiotics and surgery didn't work
  • She says her cat's behavior and health improved after taking medication
  • Walmsley: People think giving pets psychotropic medication is a joke, but it has real benefits

Editor's note: Katie Walmsley is a CNN producer and reporter.

New York (CNN) -- When I tell people our cat takes an antidepressant, I usually get a funny look. I might as well add that I worship Snoopy, am romantically involved with a Carvel ice cream cake (let's call it Cookiepuss), and drive a car that I knitted myself out of gnu fur.

Putting your pet on psychotropic medication tends to suggest to others that it is you, not your cat, who needs help.

To be fair to those I told this to, who perhaps thought my husband and I were escaped mental patients, I would have thought the same thing a few years ago.

Before she lived with us, our cat Minou resided in a garbage area. After we adopted her, every time we went away, Minou would succumb to extreme urinary tract infections, at which point through no fault of her own our whole apartment morphed into one big litter box.

Antibiotics, and even surgery, failed to address this problem. Finally, after a particularly aggressive infection that spread to the cat's kidneys, our vet recommended the happy pills.

"She is internalizing her anxiety and it is affecting her bladder," he explained. "She thinks when you leave the apartment, you're leaving forever. She thinks she's going back to the dump."

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By this time, I was several thousand dollars worse off, maxed out on pet insurance and had spent four disconcerting days watching Minou refuse to eat or move. Any remaining reservations I had about forcibly medicating an animal went out the window.

So I fed Minou happy pills.

Several months later, after the amitriptyline the vet had prescribed had truly taken hold, Minou was a noticeably different beast. Departure-related hysteria, puddle creation and the delightful nights of screeching all subsided.

We felt guilty about forcing pills down her throat, which she often tried to hide and then spit out. But we were relieved that she wasn't getting sick anymore, though she did seem floppier.

Apparently, our situation is not all that rare. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, founder of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, said many animal dysfunctions mimic human psychological issues. Excessive grooming can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggression and violence can indicate anxiety, and a refusal to eat can suggest depression in an animal.

As with humans, these behaviors often can and should be first treated by adjusting the animal's environment and behavior. But animals don't speak, and they can't lie on a therapist's sofa plumbing painful puppyhood/kittenhood memories for the roots of their neuroses, so there are limits to the scope of therapy for them. Additionally, some issues are rarely treatable except with drugs -- for example, "urine-marking" in cats or thunderstorm phobia in dogs.

Dr. Susan Nelson, professor for primary care at Kansas State University Veterinary Health Center, said many pets' troubles can be traced to human owners. We trap them in our homes, expose them to fireworks or force them to live with other animals they may intensely dislike. To you they may be Cuddles and Hector; to them it might be Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher.

The question of what kinds of feelings animals have and whether those feelings can, or should, be effectively treated with medication is, as you might imagine, controversial. Dodman said that while it's fairly evident that animals experience primary emotions such as fear, what has been more hotly debated is whether they have secondary emotions like jealousy and guilt. Those require the animal to have a sense of its own existence.

It's easy to laugh at the idea of Fido taking an antidepressant and to dismiss owners who medicate their pets as urban nut cases who probably also kit their pooch out in Alexander McQueen sweaters and tote them around in a Birkin bag. But I think it's a huge disservice to animals to discount a medicated approach.

I don't believe Minou thinks like a person, that she feels self-conscious about her saggy undercarriage or remorseful about waking me up by meowing in my face. But I know she was unhappy.

Antidepressants may not be a cure-all for every ailment or behavioral issue, but they're a step to discuss with your vet if you're at the end of your leash.

"If you're really stuck and on the point of surrender," Dodman said, "Don't give your animal up before you try a course of medication." I agree. If all else fails, you may have to put aside your inner skeptic, swallow your pride and have your pet swallow some happy pills.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Katie Walmsley.

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