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Old June 2nd, 2002, 11:16 AM
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Antidepressants for Cats

Help for Overly Frisky Felines
By Louise Knapp

Cats can be cute little bundles of fur, but rub them the wrong way and they can turn into vicious terrors.
Cat bites and scratches can inflict deep wounds on fellow felines, which can turn into painful abscesses and large veterinary bills.

An antidepressant drug that may turn hisses into purrs is about to undergo a drug trial.

"We're not talking about cats just hissing at each other, but about those that seriously fight, harming each other and their owners," said Tracy Kroll, a veterinary resident and researcher at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, where the trial is being conducted.

Cat fights create the most problems in multi-cat households where the feline inhabitants just cannot get along. In such situations, Kroll said, owners often feel distraught and helpless to see the animals they love entangled in a yowling cat punch-up.

"When the owner comes home, he doesn't know what he is coming home to," Kroll said.

Situations like these are the leading reason owners give up pets for adoption. Some owners have even been known to euthanize them, Kroll said.

"The owner feels he has to get rid of one of the cats because the situation has gotten out of control," she said.

The drug trial will establish whether the medication -- called clomipramine -- can help restore peace to these households.

Clomipramine works by inhibiting the re-uptake of serotonin. This means that more serotonin -- one of the neurotransmitters associated with upbeat moods and decreased anxiety -- is made available.

Clomipramine has already gained FDA approval for human and canine use. It's currently used in humans to treat panic and anxiety disorders, and for canines suffering from "separation anxiety," when the dog finds the absence of its owner too much to bear.

Clomipramine has occasionally been prescribed for cat anxiety, but it's considered an "off-label" use -- the FDA has not given approval for this treatment.

While veterinarians can legally prescribe such drugs, they usually will use only those that are recognized as a treatment option in the veterinary world.

A veterinarian could be considered liable, said Evan Grossman, veterinarian at the Alameda Pet Hospital in California, for prescribing something that is considered out of the ordinary.

If the trial is successful, pharmaceutical companies may seek FDA approval to use the drug on cats. This is an expensive process, but it can reap large profits for the pharmaceutical company while providing advantages for the veterinarian.

"If it had FDA approval, I would feel more comfortable prescribing it," Grossman said.

FDA approval would also highlight the need for treatment for overanxious cats and show that there are options available.

"FDA approval means that more people become aware of this new specialization in medicine -- people are made aware that behavioral problems can be treated -- so it can be good advertising," said Valarie Tynes, resident in behavior sciences at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Kroll agrees. "Cats are down the totem pole for getting looked at by people.... People don't know they have an option to treat cat aggression. It's just at its beginning stage."

If the drug were marketed specifically for cats, that would also mean it would be sold in a cat-friendly form.

"This would make it more convenient to give to cats -- the right strength and size for cats," Grossman said.

The trial, which will evaluate cats from 20 households, is slated to begin in early March. Before selecting the cats to be included in the trial, Kroll and her team will evaluate each one for suitability.

"Each cat will be looked at individually in terms of how many other cats are in the home, whether the cat is considered the bully or victim and the size of the apartment they are in," Kroll said.

The cats will then be brought in for a behavior consultation and medical exam, and the 8-week trial will begin. They will be given a daily dose of the medicine; strength of the dosage will be determined by the weight of the cat.

"It's the same as the medication currently given to dogs, a meat-flavored chewable tablet," Kroll said.

Owners will be asked to keep a before-and-during diary of the trial.

"We will have the owners give us a 'day in the life of their cat' rundown, and then we will enter this into a computer database to evaluate the progress," Kroll said.

Even if the drug trial proves to be successful, however, it may not be a cure-all.

"There is no silver bullet out there. The drugs afford a window of opportunity to help, but there has to be work done with the cat as well," Kroll said.

Grossman agrees. "These drugs should not be used solely, without behavioral therapy."


Added Tynes: "Behavioral modification is needed too -- you need learning techniques to teach the animal to deal with certain situations. You have to desensitize them to things that are scary to them."

The trial is being sponsored by Novartis Animal Health.
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