What are Melatonin and What Are its Benefits?
The hormone melatonin is best known as a natural sleep aid and a gentler alternative to prescription sedatives. It’s secreted by the brain’s pineal gland and helps regulate our bodies’ cycles of sleep and wakefulness.
The quantity of melatonin our bodies produce is affected by our circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock) which are in turn affected by how much light we’re exposed to each day.
After sunset our melatonin levels drop and remain low throughout the night, allowing us to fall and stay asleep. In the morning those levels rise again and stay elevated throughout the day to promote wakefulness. This is true of human bodies and feline bodies, too.
However, according to Sleep.org, numerous environmental factors can disrupt these cycles. The changing seasons and variability of daylight hours can cause us to become tired earlier in the day or make us wake up sooner than planned.
Our diets play a role, too, as melatonin absorbed from foods like cow’s milk, rice, and walnuts can have an unintended sedative effect on the consumer.
If you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, melatonin supplements are available in liquid, pill, and chewable forms at many drug stores and natural grocers.
Many people prefer them over benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and hypnotics, which can cause troubling side effects for some users: unusual dreams and daytime drowsiness and are some of the more commonly reported side effects, and in more extreme cases cognitive impairment and even hallucinations have been reported.
With regular use, many prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids also have the potential to become habit-forming, and benzodiazepines are particularly notorious for their addictive properties and deadly overdose risk.
One study by researcher Daniel F. Kripke found prescription sleeping pills to be “as risky as cigarettes,” with the top third of users having a 35% higher risk of cancer and more than a five-fold greater risk of death than non-users.
In contrast, the Mayo Clinic has stated that melatonin users are unlikely to become habituated to the hormone or form a psychological dependence with long-term use. And according to SleepAdvisor.org, there is no known lethal level of melatonin.
In addition to its safety, melatonin is readily available in the natural foods section of most supermarkets as well as drug stores and specialty food stores, and it’s less expensive than many prescription or OTC sedatives, making it a viable alternative for uninsured and low-income people.
Melatonin is also associated with other health benefits beyond a restful night’s sleep. It’s an antioxidant that helps to eliminate free radicals from the body, it helps regulate our immune systems, it offers protection from UV damage, and it’s even been shown to help promote the healing properties of chemotherapy in cancer patients.
Is Melatonin Safe for My Cat?
Because it’s naturally produced by the brain and carries a low risk of harmful side effects, melatonin is not only a popularly recommended sleep aid for human beings but also for pets.
In addition to sleeplessness, says PetMD, vets often recommend melatonin for treating a variety of other ailments including anxiety, alopecia, and Cushing’s disease: a hormonal disorder caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland.
The good news is that your cat is unlikely to ever need melatonin. As any cat owner can tell you the majority of cats are master sleepers, averaging 16 – 18 hours of shut-eye each day. And unlike your typical human being, they rarely need any assistance settling down for bedtime!
But this isn’t true of all pets. If a cat is anxiety-prone, getting insufficient exercise during the day, or feeling neglected by its pet parents – a common cause of attention-seeking behavior at inappropriate hours – it can start acting up in some undesirable ways. These commonly include restlessness at night.
An important consideration here is the fact that cats are hardwired to be nocturnal hunters. In most instances, these impulses can be modified by offering your cat food earlier in the day and ensuring it gets enough activity, ideally through interactive play with you.
Meet these requirements, and most of the time your cat will happily cooperate with you when bedtime rolls around.
But let’s say you’ve upheld your end of the bargain by providing food and physical activity, and your cat still spends most nights roaming around the house, yowling, racing around, pouncing, or even scratching the furniture.
Once other medical causes of insomnia have been ruled out by your veterinarian, melatonin might be the magic bullet you need to encourage restfulness in your cat.
If you’ve already paid your vet a visit and they’ve determined that nothing is medically wrong with your cat, it might be time to explore supplementing with melatonin. But where do you begin?
How Much Melatonin Should I Give My Cat?
The size of the dosage you give your cat will depend on a few different factors including its age and weight. Your vet will be able to give you more information about the appropriate amount.
As a general guideline, you should always consult with a veterinarian before introducing any new medication or natural supplement into your cat’s daily regimen.
PetCoach advises that the recommended amount of melatonin for cats is between 3 and 6 milligrams administered half an hour before bedtime.
It is recommended that you start with the lowest possible dosage and increase it gradually as needed. Do not exceed 6 milligrams per dosage.
Do note that melatonin supplements come in a variety of forms and that they can range in quantity. Be sure to carefully apportion capsules or liquid droppers of melatonin according to veterinary guidelines before administering the supplement to your cat.
Pet owners should also note that because melatonin is not regulated by the FDA, not all melatonin supplements are of equal quality.
It is recommended that you purchase your cat’s melatonin from a vet-recommended nutriceutical retailer to ensure your pet receives the optimal benefits of each dosage.
Most importantly, if you find that your cat requires increasingly higher dosages of melatonin in the long term, you should consult with your veterinarian to rule out more troublesome causes of insomnia, as persistent sleeplessness can sometimes point to serious underlying conditions.
What About Cats in Heat?
According to HillsPet, an unspayed cat will typically have its first heat at 4 to 6 months of age. This usually occurs in spring and then again in autumn and can last anywhere from several days to several weeks.
At this time, your cat will be at the height of its fertile period and actively seeking a mate. You’ll probably notice increased affection, with your cat likely rubbing its hindquarters against people, furniture, and walls, spraying, and vocalizing.
These last two behaviors are some of the most problematic for cat owners. The strong-smelling urine associated with heat can be almost impossible to fully neutralize from carpet or furniture, and the noisy yowling can be stressful and distracting to listeners.
This can be doubly problematic if your cat is allowed to roam outside freely, as the mate-seeking vocalizations can persist late into the night and bother your neighbors.
If your cat lives solely indoors, you can expect equally bothersome behavior as it makes repeated efforts to get out and continue its search for a mate.
It’s not uncommon for a cat in heat to become frantic, clawing at window screens and doors or making a run for it whenever someone enters or exits the house.
Any vet will tell you that the best solution to these problems is a simple one: have your cat spayed. For most pet parents the decision of whether to spay is uncomplicated, as few people want surprise litters of kittens. But for some including professional breeders, spaying simply isn’t an option.
In cases like these, melatonin can offer you and your cat the relief you both crave. It’s sedative properties will help calm its reproductive impulses along with the behaviors that threaten your property and sanity until the heat has passed.
In fact, according to PetPlace, some veterinarians will even perform subcutaneous melatonin implants in cats and dogs.
In 18 milligram doses, the melatonin implant has been shown to help temporarily suppress estrus in cats, acting similarly to the birth control implant developed for humans.
Can Melatonin Help Cat Aggression?
Another problem many cat owners have to deal with is aggression. According to the ASPCA, this is the second most common reason for cat owners to seek the help of animal behaviorists.
Though cat aggression is less obvious threatening than dog aggression due to their small size, the injuries sustained in a cat attack can be surprisingly serious.
Whereas dogs can only inflict damage with their mouths, cats have sharp teeth as well as four retractable-clawed paws to contend with, and the bites and lacerations they’re capable of causing are not only painful but very prone to infection.
If left untreated, they can also lead to cat scratch fever: An infectious disease that presents with flu-like symptoms and can lead to potentially serious complications.
Living with an aggressive cat can be a hazard, especially to small children and other pets, and because there are so many possible causes it can be a uniquely difficult behavioral problem to resolve.
Before attempting to treat aggression yourself, you should consult a vet to ensure your cat isn’t suffering from any underlying medical conditions, as in some cases aggression can be a sign of thyroid, adrenal, or neurological disorder.
Other aggression can be an unfortunate side effect of poor socialization, particularly in feral and shelter cats as well as those that have been rescued from abusive environments.
In cases like these, behavior modification is often the most successful strategy for neutralizing aggression, but it should only be performed with the supervision of a professional. Your vet may be able to recommend a cat behaviorist to assist you.
Once you’ve covered all your other bases by having a medical workup and seeking the advice of a behaviorist, you can try introducing melatonin into your aggressive cat’s diet.
For safety’s sake, it is recommended that aggressive cats be given melatonin chewable – or a pill wrapped in a favorite treat like deli meat or cheese – rather than being “burrito wrapped” and made to swallow supplements.
We do not advise relying on melatonin alone to cure problems of aggression in cats.
What’s the Best Melatonin Supplement for My Cat?
Choosing the right supplement for your cat isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Most pet owners are acquainted with the challenges of making an unwilling pet swallow medicine, and naturally, these challenges will likely factor into the product you purchase.
Fortunately, there are a number of options available, and many of them are designed specifically to lessen the challenge of making your cat take its medicine.
If you know your cat is likely to be uncooperative, the path of least resistance is a flavored chewable supplement. Because it’s disguised as an ordinary treat, your cat may be likelier to accept it than it will a pill or a dropper full of liquid melatonin.
Catological recommends NaturVet’s Quiet Moments Calming Aid, which comes in packs of 60 and can be safely administered to kittens as young as 12 weeks.
Another option is the 3-milligram melatonin pill offered by VetRXDirect. These pills can be given to your cat wrapped in meat or cheese, or inserted into a pill pocket for easier delivery.
The dosage is right in the mid-range of what’s recommended for adult cats, so you can easily half a pill or double the dosage as needed.
If your cat is restless at night, suffers from anxiety, in heat, or behaving aggressively toward people or other animals, a melatonin supplement can be just what it needs.
However, you should always consult with your vet first to rule out the possibility of any serious causes underlying your cat’s behavioral issues.
Thanks for reading! We wish you and your cat a good night’s sleep.