Skip to main content

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.
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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
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
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
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
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
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.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
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.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT