SSRI Medications for Cat Behavior Issues

SSRI, short for selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors, is an anti-anxiety medication that can reduce certain behavioral problems in your cat. However, medication alone is rarely able to cure a behavior problem and should be used in conjunction with a behavioral modification program.

How SSRIs Work

SSRIs affect serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with general awareness, coping mechanisms, adaptability and facilitation of social interactions. Common SSRIs are fluoxetine such as Reconcile or Prozac, paroxetine such as Paxil and sertraline such as Zoloft. These drugs work by increasing the reuptake of serotonin so more is available to bind in the brain, which will increase your cat's adaptability and ability to cope.

SSRIs have been used to treat anxiety-related problems such as avoidance of litter box, fear behaviors, aggression and compulsive behaviors such as excessive grooming. To be effective, SSRIs must be taken at least once per day.

However, SSRIs are not a quick fix. Because they are changing the chemical composition of the brain, they may take weeks to be effective and must be used for several months before effectiveness can be determined. In fact, SSRIs may even increase anxiety early in treatment. If you are concerned about this, ask the veterinarian if your cat may be started on a lower dosage than initially recommended.

Caution When Using SSRIs

As with many medications, long-term usage of SSRIs has been linked with health problem such as liver and kidney disease. If your cat has suffered any serious illnesses, discuss those with your veterinarian and keep up-to-date with blood panels that will detect changes in liver and kidney enzymes.

SSRIs should not be used in conjunction with certain medications so alert your veterinarian to any medication your cat is currently using and consult with him or her before adding any new medications.

Do not remove your cat from an SSRI suddenly because that can cause health problems. If you are unhappy with the results, discuss gradually reducing the dosage of the SSRI so your cat can adjust to the changes.

Though SSRIs reduce anxiety, they do not treat the underlying cause of the anxiety, such as fear of people or loud noises. Thus, you may become dependent on the drug if not used in conjunction with a behavior modification program.

While your cat is on medication, begin to desensitize him to his fears by exposing them at low levels such as having a new person stand on the other side of the house and rewarding your cat with a treat. Gradually increase the intensity of the stimuli. If your cat shows signs of stress at any point, move slowly and increase the reward schedule.

When behavior modification alone just isn't enough to curb your cat's anxiety, SSRIs can be a means of reducing anxiety levels enough to begin a training program. When used together, these can be quite effective. However, you must be aware of the health risks of long-term use and implement a behavior modification program to ensure your cat won't be on medication forever.