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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT