Updated March 18, 2021
No one wants to drug their pets. I get that. But we need to talk about mental health.
Let’s start by throwing out all the weasel words that stop us seeing it for what it is. It isn’t a ‘behaviour problem’ except to us. All these concerns like destruction, whining, howling, barking, biting or escaping. They’re only symptoms of a much greater problem.
The Whining Dog
Tassie is a good example. She was rescued from the lands to the north and is in a lot of trouble. At the shelter she was on medication to help her adjust but now that she’s in a loving home, she’s just not coping.
One of the neighbours, bless ‘em, has already sent anonymous letters and the council around due to the noise. Now it’s an emergency. Tassie has nowhere else to go and it’s only a matter of time until an enforceable order is issued.
As an aside, to any neighbours of noisy dogs reading this, I have lived near them too and I really do sympathise, but this isn’t the way. You’re unnecessarily putting lives at risk. Please try to talk to the owners first before involving the authorities. Most people will seek help if they only know how bad the problem is.
The Number One Mental Illness
But what is the problem? It isn’t the noise or the destroyed door frames. It’s the terrible anxiety Tassie experiences whenever she‘s left alone. And like most mental illnesses left untreated, it’s getting worse, not better.
So here are the two major points:
- The suffering experienced by anxious dogs is a serious welfare issue
- She needs medication
Are you shocked by how quickly I started Tassie on fluoxetine? You shouldn’t be. The perfect world where she normalises with behavioural therapy alone isn’t available to her. She’s too severely affected and there’s no time.
We all know people who have benefited from anxiety medications. Why, then, is there still so much resistance to treating suffering dogs the same way?
What Anxiety Meds Do in Dogs
Here’s what we expect from a long-term anxiety medication: it should produce no visible changes in a dog’s nature except to modify her anxiety. It certainly won’t sedate her in any way. If she sleeps more, it’s only because now she can.
Sometimes we also add situational anxiety medications like gabapentin, clonidine or trazodone. These are especially useful for predictable, short-term causes of anxiety like car travel, trips to the vet or visitors.
Behaviour-modifying drugs should be harmless, or we’ll stop them. We’ll watch their visible effects, and monitor blood test results to make sure of this, but these are some of the safest drugs we have.
The effect of fluoxetine will start to appear in a week and reach full effect after four weeks. We’ll also use an Adaptil pheromone collar for added benefit even though the effects are mild. You could add a Thundershirt or natural remedies too, but I don’t see these work on their own.
Medication Alone Isn’t Enough
Medication is only half the story though. Sometimes I can’t be sure from my one-off assessment in a stressful environment that medication is really the solution. Even when I am, I know that on its own medication will do some good, but not enough. By blocking anxiety, SSRIs also open a window so that longer-term treatments can work.
So I always insist on the help of an expert in the area where I’m not. Sometimes I won’t even start medication until they agree with me. They aren’t all that expensive, they double the benefit of medication, and give a realistic hope that the drugs can be tapered off some day.
Experts aren’t in the business of telling you what you want to hear, though. They will no doubt ask you to do some work. They may also find fault with your home environment.
If this bothers you, you’re not alone.
Finding The Right Advice
Here’s a current example. There are still a lot of professional dog trainers in Adelaide who are stuck in the old ‘your dog is trying to dominate you’ school. This flies in the face not only of common sense but also of positive trainers clearly getting better results.
Why don’t they accept the evidence? Probably pride, but also a natural resistance to change. I’ve been forced to confront some of my own outdated ideas, and even for me (as a non-expert) it isn’t easy. I can see why they find it very hard.
But I digress. The core message is this: if you have any dog with a ‘behaviour problem’, seek help. And if some of that help comes in the form of medication, keep an open mind. Ask how important it is, but don’t feel that it’s such a big step.
Anxiety meds are just tools to get the job done. And boy, does your dog need you to.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.