Maybe cats that pick fights with others aren't naturally nasty.
They could be victims of social anxiety, and a medication called clomipramine might restore peace in multi-cat households, according to behavior specialists at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, where a new drug test is about to begin.
"We're looking for 20 real bullies -- the ones that start the fights -- to see whether cat-to-cat aggression can be reduced with anti-anxiety medication," says Tracy Kroll, a veterinary resident and researcher in Cornell's Animal Behavior Clinic.
Cats whose owners are within driving distance of the Ithaca, N.Y., clinic will receive free medical exams and behavioral consultations, as well as enough clomipramine for the eight-week study. Eligibility requirements and other details of the study, which is sponsored at Cornell by Novartis Animal Health, Inc., are available by calling (607) 253-3450 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
"Some of the over-anxiety may be territorial or it may start when you bring a new cat into the house," Kroll says. "Then there's the so-called redirected aggression, when your indoor cat can't reach a cat outside the window, so it fights with a sibling or other other feline friend inside. Whatever the cause, inter-cat aggression can be damaging, both physically and emotionally, for the humans involved."
Wounds from cat fights easily become infected, she notes. And people feel distraught and helpless when animals they love are entangled in yowling, fur-flying brawls. Inter-cat aggression is a leading reason why owners give up pets for adoption or euthanasia, Kroll reports. Clomipramine is used in humans, under the brand name Anafranil, to treat panic and anxiety disorders. In dogs, under the brand name Clomicalm, it is used to treat "separation anxiety," when canines find the absence of their owners to be unbearable. At present, clomipramine for anxiety in cats is regarded as an "off-label use" in the United States, meaning that veterinarians legally can prescribe the drug -- at their discretion -- for certain conditions in cats, although it is not fully approved for felines. If the drug proves to be successful in treating inter-cat aggression or other feline disorders, pharmaceutical companies could seek Food and Drug Administration approval for that use.
Cat owners seeking admission to the drug trial have the option of bringing both cats -- the aggressor and the victim, in separate carriers -- to Cornell for a behavioral consultation. Or they can bring only the aggressor and a videotape showing a typical cat fight.
In the meantime, Kroll advises: "Don't try to break up a cat fight with your bare hands. You can really get hurt and it probably won't help, anyway.