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Does Your Cat Need a Psychiatrist?

By Darcy Lockman

Does Your Cat Need a Psychiatrist?

When Abby, a 5-year-old tabby, was adopted by a California couple after the cat’s first family lost their home in Hurricane Katrina, Abby’s new caretakers were determined to keep the feline indoors for its own protection. After years of roaming free in New Orleans, however, Abby began to respond to her confinement by urinating just about everywhere other than her litter box. Her owners spent a year trying to change Abby’s behavior with no success, so they called Dr. Kenneth Martin, a New Orleans-based veterinary behaviorist also known as the cat “psychiatrist.”

Martin treated Abby with a combination of behavior therapy and antidepressant medication. “We gave her the cat version of Prozac and enriched her environment with toy rotation,” he says. “We put the litter boxes in different areas. We made the areas she had been soiling unattractive to her. Within two weeks, the marking had completely dissipated.”

A staff member at Louisiana’s Veterinary Behavior Consultations, Martin has had many experiences with the emotional lives of cats, and he shares his wisdom with us here.

The Most Common Cat Issues

  • Inappropriate elimination In cats, marking territory with urine is often an anxiety-related behavior. If your cat is backing up to a vertical surface in your home and eliminating small amounts, it’s most likely stress related. This is typically a response to other cats on their territory, either inside or outside the home.
  • Aggression Genetics play a big role in how social -- or antisocial -- a cat may be. Environment is also a factor, and kittens have a small window for socialization. By the time they’re seven weeks old, they’ve had their most formative social experiences. That means that by the time you’ve taken in a cat, its personality, including how comfortable it feels socially, has already formed. A socially uncomfortable cat is more prone to aggressive behavior toward people and animals.
  • Intense fear The term “scaredy cat” evolved because cats can respond with intense fear to a variety of sounds, smells and sights. The coping techniques, such as excessive grooming, that cats develop to soothe themselves can become problematic.

The Feline Treatment
After all possible medical causes, such as hyperthyroidism, for the aforementioned behaviors are ruled out, Martin uses a two-tiered treatment of medication and behavior modification. The medications are either antidepressants like Prozac -- the cat version is called Reconcile -- or antianxiety drugs like Valium. “Medication, when we use it, takes the edge off, but the goal is always to wean the pet after it has learned to cope with the environmental stressors,” says Martin.

While medication is used only on a case-by-case basis, behavioral and environmental modifications are always a part of Martin’s treatment plan. These can include the simple changes Martin instituted in Abby’s household, such as making her chosen places for elimination unappealing or a more involved treatment like exposure therapy for intense fear.

“In exposure therapy, we identify what is making a cat anxious, and then we expose them repeatedly to that stimulus in a non-threatening manner, getting the fear level to go down,” he explains. “We also use a method called counter-conditioning, where the animal is given food treats while being exposed to the scary situation.”

When to Call a Behaviorist
If your cat is displaying the following symptoms and your veterinarian rules out underlying medical problems, you may want to call a cat behaviorist.

  • Excessive restlessness demonstrated by constant tail wagging, pacing and the inability to settle down
  • Unusual frequency of vocalization
  • Separation anxiety that appears suddenly and lasts for a long time
  • Inappropriate elimination or aggression

“We behaviorists can be helpful any time a behavioral condition compromises the underlying welfare of the cat or owner. Behavior problems are taxing to the human-animal bond,” says Martin. Just ask Abby the tabby’s owners, who are now in a stress-free, loving relationship with their litter box-using pet.

Darcy Lockman is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Daily Cat. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

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Posted on April 30, 2012

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Posted on January 5, 2012

Judith says: My ten year old male neutered cat has been obsessively preening and has licked off half his tummy hair this fall/winter.

Posted on September 28, 2011

Jason says: I adopted a cat from the humane society. "Smoochie". Smoochie is a bit aggressive. i have tried calming collars to prozak. she has her own room, cat box, and food/water bowls. after 6 months she still bites and attacks the other cat "leia". i have given her all the love you can give a cat, and i have had little (not zero) success. any tips?

Posted on August 15, 2011

Kathy says: I have a small 10 yr old female Russian Blue, named Pooh-ka who rarely uses the litter box. She will at times (few) use it for urination, but for #2 will go directly in front of my toilet on the tile or use the bathtub. She will urinate on specific throw rugs and bunch them up afterward or pick a specific area of carpet....right in front of the entrance to my bathroom where her litter box is. She is also very unsocial to other cats and only in her older years was I allowed to walk up to her unless she was in her bed. She would shy away. Yet, she loves attention and will "knead" or even give me a little lick on the hand or arm. I have ask a few vets and the most common answer is the litter itself or she just doesn't like the texture and prefers the slickness of the floor or tub. While this could definitely be worse, it's still annoying. Does she need meds? I had a female calico Maine Coon who's nickname was Ma Holly because she mothered this one and another female Maine Coon female (6 yr old) before she passed. (cancer at 9) Pooh-ka did get along with her, but would never "play". Since Ma Holly has passed the two left just hiss and avoid each other. I have two litter boxes, and have never had a problem with either Maine Coon. I miss my Mamma Holly. Sweetest and most loveable cat ever. She kept the other two in line, yet loved on them also, always licking their ears and encouraging play... I know she's in Kitty Heaven and chasing fireflys and butterflies and watching out for all the other kitties there. <3 Any help with the potty troubles of Pooh-Ka is very much appreciated, as I'm out of ideas. TIA

Posted on April 14, 2011

barb says: Last year my rather normal 1 year old cat started to hide and run in basement whenever anyone came to my house. She has been doing it for a year now and I worry about the stress it causes her.

Posted on May 31, 2011

concepcionimmaculada says: I've got an 11 year old female Siamese that does laps around my living room and alternates with smaller laps around the fireplace. The late night and early morning hours have gotten unbearable thanks to the neighborhood cats who climb on the roof/hang out by my skylight/and otherwise do what cats will do in the middle of the night outside on the rooftop - all of these things cause my cat to yowl as if she's being swung around by the tail...while on fire...(purely speculation, since obviously I don't swing her around by the tail after setting her on fire...or at least it SHOULD be obvious). A few years back I had someone come to replace the tub, put up tile and new shower doors in my bathroom - during lunch my cat decided to climb around and explore, but panicked (*meaning she froze when lunch ended and work resumed) - leading to 1 handyman getting yelled at, 2-3 hours of anxious neighborhood searching, me taking down the drywall and discovering that it hadn't been attached to studs *at all*, and being told I was 'hearing things' which turned out NOT to be the case since after the drywall came down the lights were dimmed and I sat on the bathroom floor my cat emerged and promptly hid under the bed for another hour. I'm wondering if she left something there she wants back. She's rather fond of sliding around in the empty tub after pawing or using her head to open the shower doors. When I brought her home from the house she was being fostered at through a rescue group she went straight under the bed and for a week or so I worried that she'd escaped somehow but since the food was disappearing she had to be in my bedroom somewhere. She'd wedged herself underneath my dresser and had no choice but to yowl for assistance. Life with a Siamese is never boring that's for sure.

Posted on January 14, 2011

Jacqueline says: I have been living with a female friend (65 y o), who owns a 4 y o (neutered) large male cat, for slightly more than a month. Even though I buy food for him, praise him and he allows me to stroke him with my socked foot, he at any given time will hiss at me. I do not startle him. It seems willful. I fear he will eventually bite me or his owner. What do we do to help him overcome this behavior?

Posted on January 2, 2011

judy ross says: i have fed a kitten for four mos. it lived under our trailor she never been held or been around people only us. i have lolled her in the house and shut the door she is in a large trvavel carrier she wants nothing to do with us. what can i do. judy from tenn.

Posted on October 13, 2010

Casino Club says: ha, I will try out my thought, your post get me some good ideas, it's really awesome, thanks. - Thomas

Posted on December 31, 2010

Nicole Watts says: MY CAT IS BRINGING THE NEIGHBOURS SHOES HOME!!! I have a 6 and a half year old tortishell female cat called PUDDY who was desexed in 2009 after having a fair few litters of kittens.After being desexed she was a loving cat as always, i kept a kitten out of her first littercalled TALLULAH who was also female because it looked just like her.a year and a half later Tallulah had a litter and puddy tried to take them over the neighbours fence, i seen her jumping over fence with a kitten and ran over to her calling her name. As Puddy has trust in me she let the kitten go believing i was there to catch it, i was only centremetres away and missed the kitten and it fell 1.6 metres on concrete and was knocked out but recovered. I decided to keep that cat also as i felt sorry for her and named her TRIO. Trio had a litter a year later and was desexed strait after along with puddy, tallulah was later done. Approximatley 3 weeks ago Puddy began to bring shoes home to me that belonged to the neighbours and meows until i come outside to witness what she has bought home. It began with the next door neighbours shoes, up to 4 a day, mens australian size 10 sandals at one time that would have been extremley heavy. After various random shoes being bought home by her i had to start doorknocking as i didnt know who they belonged to and was told by a neighbour it couldnt have been the cat after i returned a pair of shoes that belonged to her daughter and a thong and a slip on. This neighbours house is 100 metres approximatley around the corner an the shoes would be heavy. I have researched as to why she is doing this and have found nothing, i am hoping u can help me. I also included information about the other cats that live with her and her fair few litters as im not sure if its relevant. She is very affectionate, I got Puddy when she was 3 weeks old off a neighbour at my old address because her mother was killed by a feral cat..PLEASE HELP ME

Posted on September 20, 2010

Sue J. Underwood says: Cher is acting different, she is not active, has her head lowered and appears listless?

Posted on September 27, 2010


Posted on April 21, 2010

Christi says: My neighbors are consumed with anxiety of someones cats and are asking me why they are jumping on there fence. How can I keep them from going on there property? They have thrown things at them to avoid going on the fence. Not sure who owns them, but some of the neighbors do feed them?

Posted on June 17, 2010

amanda says: I have a cat named tigger that we have had since birth and two other cats which are a male named blackjack and female named milkdud they are her parents. Tigger and milkdud had been in a seperate room then black jack for a while because we didnt have them fixed and i have been told that a male cat could kill a kitten for many reasons. They have been around eachother but onlyn for short times. Tigger has always been shy, she wont jump and she will hide alot. We just got our male cat fixed about a month ago and we started putting all the cats together throughout the day like the vet told us but tigger hisses at blackjack everytime they get around eachother and she will hide. tonight i figured that she wouldnt do anything because throught the day they seemed fine but she tries to pick fights with both of them and its not to play and then she will go hide. I dont know whats wrong with her and why she is so depressed. Can you help?

Posted on September 10, 2010

Patrick Linden says: After 5 years of urinationg in her litter box she now likes doing it next to me. I'm confused. Could you help?

Posted on September 12, 2010

Sabrina says: I have 5 cats and all of them are loving. They are all almost perfect but one. The mother of the famliy of cats is about 6 years old and very unfriendly cat. Her name is Sarah and she poops and pee's everywhere. Sarah has been doing this for 5 years on and off basis. This year is the worst! Started not long after her kittens were 6 weeks old when she was about 2 years old. Stoped about 2 months later. Most of the time she does it for 3 or 4 months a year. This year she been doing it now for 6 months stright and its about 7 months yet. The places she goes the bathroom is on top of cars, beds,rugs, under chairs, on chairs, any type of floor, even people and sometimes on computers. We never let her lay next to us or hold her because she'll use us a bathroom. Sarah always shakes her tail back and fourth, in slow speed all the time like she consupayed or something. That tail thing just stated this month and continues. Very loving and friendly when hungery and sometimes very playful. Mostly Sarah would look at us with evil look and stay way. We have done everything to get her to us the litter box. 1st we had changed the litter to many different types none worked. 2nd we got more and different types of litter boxs nothing changed. 3rd We thought she was sick with something so we took her to the vet. Sarah came out healthly as a baby kitten. The only thing that changed was she started to used area around litter box as a new toilet. None of my over cats do this and I do not want to get rid of Sarah I still love her! Please anyone if you know whats wrough with Sarah and how to stop her from doing this please help!

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