Pets & Animals

Could your kitty have a chemical imbalance? 'Cat From Hell' star talks pet meds

John Chapple / Today
Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy comes from a holistic background, but believes mood-stabilizing drugs can be a great benefit to cats.

Coco the cat had attacked her owner, Tawny, a few times. 

"Coco was dangerous!" said Jason Galaxy, star of Animal Planet's "My Cat From Hell" of the kitty, who appears in the show's new episode this week. 

"She's a beautiful little kitten, no problem," the cat behaviorist explained. "She hits a certain age, she snaps. It's just something that's kind of common." 

After some evaluations, it turned out that Coco "had a chemical imbalance" that was contributing to her issues, according to Galaxy. "But once we introduced some mood-stabilizing medication, she was much more workable."

The topic of putting animals on behavior-modifying prescriptions has some pet parents split, but for Galaxy, it's a no-brainer.

"The thought that we would deny help for the mental health of our animals, when we wouldn't do the same for ourselves, is a little sadistic in terms of standing on ceremony and saying, 'No, we should not drug our pets,' " Galaxy, who comes from a holistic background, told "We're at a place now where (medication) actually helps. We're not trying to sedate them anymore. We're trying to right the ship, and I've seen miracles. I mean, really, seriously. Miracles."

Dr. Sarah Brandon, a veterinarian who works at Cats Exclusive Veterinary Hospital in Seattle, stressed, "(People) need to have their cat examined by their regular veterinarian to rule out underlying health concerns" that may be causing behavior changes. "If all is good there, the next step may be to start medications or to be seen by a veterinary behaviorist."

More important, "Never give your cat any human drug without talking to your veterinarian first," she warned. "Even the smallest dose of, say, Tylenol, can kill a cat. ... If an owner gave a cat (a whole tablet of Paxil), this could result in the inability to urinate, which is potentially deadly if not caught."

That said, she noted that as with any other drug, there are pros and cons to giving cats mood stabilizers such as Paxil and Prozac. On the plus side, "They are low cost, easy to give and can greatly improve a cat's quality of life," she noted. 

But some cats may have a negative reaction to the medication, including urine retention, some of which is severe, and constipation. Felines may also become lethargic or rarely excitable.

"The goal," Dr. Brandon said, "is to use the lowest effective does to mitigate these issues while controlling the behavior in question."

For owners who would rather go a medication-free route, Dr. Brandon said that "there are a host of natural therapies" available that work well for cats, including felines that may have had adverse reactions to behavior-modifying drugs. Those include products such as Happy Traveler treats made from herbs to treat general anxiety, and nurtureCalm pheromone collars.

In addition, "environmental enrichment can keep a shy cat cozier or an outgoing cat entertained," Dr. Brandon said. 

Galaxy noted that it's not always only the feline who is at the heart of the issue. Sometimes, it can be the human who is part of the problem. "It's almost always a pretty even split," he said. "Cats are energetic balloons. They're energetic sponges. Behavior is a response to environment."

In the case of Coco, Galaxy said that Tawny had become "deathly afraid of her own cat," which fed into Coco's reaction to her. 

To repair their relationship, in addition to putting Coco on medication, Galaxy tried something he hadn't done before.

"A lot of the work I did with them was getting Tawny to trust the cat," he said. "I did some exercises where I blindfolded (Tawny) and made her feed the cat out of her hand. It was pretty wonderful!"

"My Cat From Hell" airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on Animal Planet.

Follow Anna Chan on Google+ and Twitter.