Skip to main content

Why I feed my cat antidepressants

By Katie Walmsley, CNN
updated 2:11 PM EDT, Sun March 10, 2013
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.
HIDE CAPTION
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
From anxiety to calmness
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
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."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT