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COLUMN ONE

Fido's little helper

Is the family pet being a pill? For an increasing number of owners relief comes from popping a Prozac -- into their cat or dog.

January 10, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

WHAT could be wrong with Shadow? The green-eyed, long-haired cat had adapted well to his Santa Monica home. There was a carpeted cat tree in the living room for his climbing pleasure. He appeared to have reached an understanding about sharing the house with the other resident feline.

Then one day his owners saw wet spots around the house: Shadow was urine-spraying. The door was a favorite target. So was the side of the sofa. And a corner wall of the living room.

Not to be confused with eschewing the litter pan, spraying is a ritual of territorial marking that cats sometimes do whether they are spayed or neutered -- as Shadow is -- or not.

Shadow's keepers, Fernanda Gray and Elliot Goldberg, were distressed. Pet ownership, they believe, is a trust not to be betrayed. "I don't throw animals away," said Gray, who with her husband now owns three cats.

But Shadow's spraying had tested the couple's resolve. They had to replace draperies, carpeting and the sofa. Their veterinarian was running out of ideas to discourage Shadow's habit.

Then Gray saw a small newspaper ad in 2001: "Spraying Cats Needed for Study." Shadow was accepted into a double-blind study of an undisclosed medication's effect on the behavior.

Fourteen days later, the spraying abruptly stopped.

The drug was Prozac. Five years later, Shadow is still taking the medication -- half a 10-milligram tablet once a day -- in its generic form, fluoxetine, a $16 supply of which lasts about four months.

"He's still active, he's still his hyperactive self," Gray said. "But it just takes that anxiety away."

THEY are the new "Prozac Nation": cats, dogs, birds, horses and an assortment of zoo animals whose behavior has been changed, whose anxieties and fears have been quelled and whose owners' furniture has been spared by the use of antidepressants. Over the last decade, Prozac, Buspar, Amitriptyline, Clomicalm -- clomipromine that is marketed expressly for dogs -- and other drugs have been used to treat inappropriate, destructive and self-injuring behavior in animals.

It's not a big nation yet. But "over the past five years, use has gone up quite a bit," said veterinarian Richard Martin of the Brentwood Pet Clinic in West Los Angeles. Half a decade ago, no more than 1% of his patients were on antidepressants. Now, Martin estimates that 5% of the 8,000 cats and dogs seen at the clinic are taking drugs for their behavior.

The use of antidepressants is another example of the growing sophistication of medical care available to animals and willingly financed by owners who see pets as cherished companions. For these owners, drug therapy is not just another indulgence like Louis Vuitton carriers and day spas for the pampered pet. In their eyes, medication is urgent. Indeed, the new Prozac Nation is not populated with the worried well of the animal kingdom; it's filled with animals behaving so badly they're in danger of being cast off to a shelter and, possibly, a death sentence.

"If you have a cat that sprays constantly, that's not a cat you're likely to keep," said Elyse Kent, the veterinarian who owns the Westside Hospital for Cats. "We were compelled to try these behavioral modification drugs."

Kent has been treating cats with psychoactive drugs, mostly for spraying or aggression, for 12 years. After a UC Davis study published in 2001 showed that fluoxetine reduced feline spraying -- and following the success of Kent's patient, Shadow, in a Prozac trial -- Prozac became a frequent choice at her clinic.

"I'd say twice a week, someone comes in to get a prescription for Prozac or fluoxetine or clomipromine," said Kent, who nonetheless estimates that at any one time only 1% of her practice's 3,000 patients are taking a psychoactive drug. ("Six weeks to three months is the average" length of treatment, she said.)

Veterinarians who prescribe psychoactive drugs insist they are not Dr. Feelgoods for the animal set. They do medical work-ups on animals, they say, to rule out physical causes for destructive or neurotic actions and prefer to use behavior modification instead of -- or, at least, along with -- drug therapy. Sometimes they have to deflate the expectations of owners eager to place their pets on antidepressants.

"I tell people if I had a magic pill, I would give it to them," said veterinary behaviorist Karen Sueda, who works at the VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. "In most cases when we give medication, it is not going to be a quick fix."

Said Curtis Eng, chief veterinarian of the Los Angeles Zoo: "My feeling is they are a useful tool -- one of many -- to decrease stress and anxiety on an animal. If you can relieve the stressors through a behavior management program, I would much rather do that. But sometimes you need a little extra help to get them over that hump."

When the zoo was coaxing a male orangutan, Minyak, back to respiratory health and enough energy for mating, veterinarians consulted with a psychiatrist and put the primate on the antidepressant Remeron.

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