Interview with a Pet Psychiatrist

A veterinary behaviorist explains how a consultation could help your cat.

Veterinary Behaviorist Kenneth Martin, DVM, of Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC in New Orleans, La., shared some insight into the world of feline behavior modification.

1. In what cases, if any, might treatment by a “pet psychiatrist” be of benefit?

A veterinarian who treats behavioral disorders or a veterinary behaviorist can be helpful when a behavioral condition compromises the underlying welfare of the pet or owner. This includes normal, as well as abnormal, behaviors for the pet that are troublesome.

Unfortunately, behavior problems are often taxing to the human-animal bond and are one of the leading causes of relinquishment or euthanasia for pets.

2. How much does a veterinary behavior consultation typically cost?
Costs will vary pending geographical region and the type of services that are offered. For our services, a 2-hour, in-home behavior consultation typically costs between $325 and $425. This includes six months of short telephone and e-mail follow up. Actual cost will vary depending on the presenting problem.

3. What can a cat owner expect to occur at a typical consultation?
All behavior cases are seen on a veterinary referral basis only. We maintain and work in conjunction with the regular veterinarian during the course of treatment. For in-home veterinary behavior consultations, the first hour includes a thorough behavioral history, temperament evaluation and details incidents related to the presenting problems. The second hour consists of a diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan. The treatment plan is given in a typed discharge summary, and the client is shown how the plan is to be implemented in the home environment. Behavioral handouts are always included for supplemental information.

 4. Are there certain types of prescriptions that cats can take to modify behavior? If so, what are a few examples?
Medications are only used on a case by case basis in conjunction with behavioral and environmental modification. Antidepressants are most commonly used. Examples include: Fluoxetine, Paroxetine, Amitriptyline and Clomipramine. Occasionally, Valium-like drugs also are beneficial. While some medications are FDA approved for treating behavioral disorders in dogs, currently, all behavior modifying medications in cats are considered extra-label use. This means that they are human medications that are not approved for use in cats. This does not mean that they are not safe or have not been tested for treating specific behavioral conditions in cats. Most medications used in veterinary medicine are considered extra label.

5. What drives a cat’s behavior, and what are some causes of mental issues with cats?
Feline behavior is a result of the interaction of genetics and learning through environmental experience. Because the socialization period of cats is very early, about 2-7 weeks of age, perhaps genetics plays a larger role — at least in terms of friendliness. We have selected different breeds of cats for conformation (body type), as well as behavioral characteristics. We have to be realistic — cats do cat things, but certain behaviors are hardwired. 
Domestic felines, being solitary hunters, are adapted to time spent away from the social group or the feline colony. There are variations of how this relates to the human domestic environment. [Cats suffering from separation anxiety] are often compared to Velcro because they are very attached and follow their preferred human companion throughout the home.
Cats can suffer from anxiety disorders similar to humans. Fears, phobias and anxiety conditions are not uncommon in cats. Only a veterinarian can rule out medical conditions that may cause or exacerbate the behavioral condition. Only a veterinarian can prescribe medication for treatment of the entire patient. This includes addressing the total physical and mental well-being of the patient.
6. Can a cat’s behavior be modified through therapy of any type? Could you provide an example?

Many feline behavior problems are amendable to behavioral modification and environmental modification. When anxiety is an underlying cause or complicates motivation, pharmacotherapy (medication) may be an appropriate treatment. It is important to realize that there is no “magic pill,” and medication should always be used as an adjunct to behavioral and environmental modification. Behavioral goals are to eventually wean the patient off medication after the patient has learned to adapt and cope with the environmental stressors.
7. Do cats get depressed like humans? How might this be treated?
It is difficult to scientifically qualify and quantify the presence or absence of feelings and emotions in animals. Clinical depression, as defined in human medicine, a psychiatric disorder characterized by an inability to concentrate, insomnia, loss of appetite, anhedonia, feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, and thoughts of death, has not been documented in animals. I don’t think cats, or other animals for that matter, suffer from clinical depression or are ever suicidal. Behavioral depression, a decrease in vigor and activity, is commonly seen in animals with medical disease or malaise. Here, treatment of the underlying medical disease is important. Behavioral depression has been observed in pets with the death of a cherished companion, whether human or animal. Occasionally, pets will appear depressed, subdued, or suffer a loss of appetite with the departure or absence of a human companion. This is referred to as atypical separation anxiety. Medication, like that used to treat separation anxiety in dogs, may be beneficial in cats showing these symptoms.
8. Do you think that sometimes owners dismiss “bad behavior” as simply a behavioral problem when really the behavior is a result of a medical condition?
Yes. Behavior problems should always be first addressed by a trip to the local veterinarian. As a veterinarian who also treats behavior problems, our first job is to rule out underlying medical disease. Behavioral signs are the first indicators of malaise in animals. Medical diseases can exacerbate or be the direct cause of the behavior problem. Many cases of feline inappropriate elimination (toileting outside of the litterbox) are due to medical factors. Medical factors directly or indirectly affect behavioral wellness. We treat the entire patient, medically, as well as behaviorally.

For more information about Dr. Martin’s practice, click here.

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Cats · Lifestyle