“My vet recommended [name of anti-anxiety medication] but I really want to try all of my other options first.”
Maybe your veterinarian has previously brought up anti-anxiety medication for your cat but you weren’t sure if it was necessary or right to try. Or maybe you already think medication might help your cat but you’re unsure how to ask your vet. The purpose of this post is to give you some information about what anti-anxiety medications (in general) can do, how they might fit into a larger behavior modification plan, and why your vet may suggest them.
MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: I am not a vet. I cannot and will not tell you specifically if your cat would benefit from anti-anxiety medication. I cannot and will not provide specifics about different drugs or supplements. Your vet is your resource for information on any substance your cat ingests. This is simply some general information so you can start thinking about this issue and hopefully be open to the conversation with your vet.
What Do Anti-Anxiety Medications Do To/For Cats?
Anti-anxiety medications act directly on a cat’s brain to decrease feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety. The goal isn’t to change your cat’s personality or cause them to be “out of it” but to ease their negative feelings so learning can take place. These medications are generally targeted at cats that display stress-related behaviors like hiding, aggression, or litter box issues. While medication isn’t right for every behavior issue or every cat, if a cat’s baseline level of stress or fear is too high, the cat won’t be able to learn through a behavior modification plan or training. Medication can create room for the cat to feel safe enough to start learning.
There are other ways to help cats feel safe so that they can learn, such as changing the environment and how we interact with the cat. These steps should absolutely be taken. However, for some cats the home environment is simply too much to handle and can’t be modified to a manageable level. These are the cats that are likely to benefit from medical help.
Anti-anxiety medications don’t work instantly or by themselves without other changes. A cat’s environment has a major impact on their behavior and stress level. Your home and routine may need to be adjusted to support stress reduction and better behavior, with or without medication. Training may be needed to overcome learned behavior patterns even after anxiety is reduced. These steps should focus on meeting your cat’s unique needs and reinforcing appropriate behavior, all while avoiding adding stress through punishment.
Why Medication Shouldn’t Always be a Last Resort
It’s understandable to want to try other options before a medical choice that may take multiple vet visits, time, and involve the risk of side effects. However, viewing medication as a last resort ignores the damage that stress does to a cat. Stressed cats can develop not just behavior problems but also health issues. Prolonging that stress can lead to worsening or new issues. It isn’t fair to put your cat or your family through needless stress if a medication could help them.
It bares repeating, that medications by themselves aren’t instant or magical fixes. Your cat will still need a behavior modification plan for real change to happen. But if a cat’s stress level is too high and can’t be managed through other means, they can’t learn a different pattern of behavior. The longer the inappropriate behavior is repeated, the harder it will be to change, even if medication is added as a “last resort”.
Finally, by the time you are in “last resort” mode, you may feel less able to complete a behavior modification plan or give medication time to work (it can take 6+ weeks sometimes). Do yourself and your cat a favor by starting with the strongest plan from the beginning.
Talking to Your Vet
Your vet should be aware of everything going on with your cat, including their behavior. Many behavior problems have physical causes, especially behavior changes in adult or senior cats. By sharing these concerns with your vet, you’re giving them your cat’s whole health picture and allowing them to add their expertise. If your vet brings up anti-anxiety medication, be open to what they have to say while also asking any questions you have. Ask about side effects, dosing, the effects of skipping pills or stopping use, and anything else you may wonder about. And ask for tips on getting your cat to take the medication! There’s an art to this and your vet can help. If you’ve stopped giving meds because it’s too hard to get your cat to take them, make sure you tell your vet that too.
Some vets are more comfortable prescribing anti-anxiety medications than others. You may be worried that the meds aren’t actually necessary or, vice versa, you may wonder if medication would be helpful but have a vet who isn’t comfortable trying it. In either case, it is completely appropriate to look for a second opinion. Be honest with your vet about your concerns and let them know you’d like to talk to another vet to gather more information. Most vets are happy to have a thoughtful pet owner take an interest getting the best care for their pet.
There are vets who specialize in behavior called Veterinary Behaviorists. They can be expensive and have long wait lists but their expertise in these matters is far greater than a general practice vet. Some Vet Behaviorists will consult by phone directly with your vet to give them guidance on behavior issues.
If your vet does prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, please know that there is often a trial-and-error process to finding to right medication and dosage. You will likely need to have ongoing vet visits to monitor your cat’s response. It can be very helpful to keep a journal of your cat’s behavior during this time to help track patterns and determine if a medication is helping and if there are any side effects.
A Note on Supplements and Natural Remedies:
There are a huge number of non-pharmacological options out there for lowering stress. Many advertise being a “natural” option and many are available over the counter. It may seem like these are a safer or cheaper option but unfortunately that is not always the case. Always, always consult with your vet about anything you are giving to your cat.
Both your cat and your family deserve a chance at living their best lives. Behavior issues need to be supported from all directions, including by your vet. You don’t need to rush into any decision and should always do your research but please don’t insist that valuable tools be used only as a “last resort.”
If your cat has a behavior problem and you’ve already spoken with your vet, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation to add the other piece of the puzzle.