This post is written by veterinarian Dr. Mark Nunez.
There are MANY dogs out there that can greatly benefit from a little pharmaceutical intervention. There are also just as many people out there that are apposed to “drugging” their dogs. This is no doubt an extrapolation of a negative stigma the “drugs” have in our society. Antibiotics are drugs. Would you ever consider withholding an antibiotic from a sick child when there is no doubt that it would cure the illness? Medicating your dog may not be an appealing idea to you, but often times medications can be a tremendous help. Stress and anxiety inhibit learning, in dogs as well as in people. Think about it, how well are you going to learn if you think your life in truly in danger? Your main concern is to escape that danger, be it real or perceived. Same goes for dogs. If anxiety can be decreased, learning can be increased. There are several types of medications that can be used.
– Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI) and Tricyclic Anti-depressants – Medications such as Prozac (Reconcile), Zoloft, and Clomicalm will cause an increase in the serotonin levels of the brain, producing a calming effect. They also have an effect on other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and dopamine. This class of medication is meant to be taken for a period of months to years. The positive effects of these medications are seen after taking them daily for 4-6 weeks.
– Benzodiazepines – Medications such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin are anti-anxiety medications that start to work in about 30-45 minutes. These can be used on an as needed basis, but can also be used daily until the SSRI’s kick in.
– Phenothiazines – Acepromazine, or Ace for short, is a VERY commonly used drug in veterinary medicine. It only sedates. It does not have any anti-anxiety properties and is not a good choice for dogs with anxiety. It makes the owners feel better because their dog cannot display the anxious behavior. The dog’s brain is still experiencing all of the stress and anxiety that the situations brings about, but his body cannot show it. Plus, it actually heightens sensitivity to noises! This medication should also be avoided in dogs that have seizures and in Boxers, sight hounds, and giant breeds.
– Anxitane – Anxitane is not a “medication,” it is a nutraceutical for the brain (like glucosamine is for joints). It decrease the frequency of alpha waves in the visual cortex of the brain. This make visual stimuli (rain and lightening) less stimulating. It has no side effects and does not cause sedation.
These are the most common medications that I use in my behavior practice. They can be used as a single agent, or in combination. Generally speaking, the longer and more severe a behavior issue is, the more likely I am to recommend medication as a part of the over all treatment program. That said, medications are not a cure all. In fact, when used alone and without behavior modification, they have a very poor success rate of about 25%. However, when used in combo with behavior modification, you increase your success rate to about 85%! Most of these medications can be discontinued after a certain period of time, but occasionally they are needed for life.