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Have you ever thought about putting your anxious dog on medication? You’re not alone. Many people turn to medication if their dog is not responsive to other behavioral remedies. Here’s a guide to when and how to think about medication for your anxious dog.
Make sure to work with your vet and veterinary behaviorist first
It’s important to consult your vet and behaviorist for their input before putting your dog on any medication. Your veterinary behaviorist (more on that topic below) will be able to tell you whether you should try other behavior modification techniques first, and your vet will tell you whether medication is a good idea, and how to do it safely. If you do decide to go forward with medication for your dog, your vet will also be the one to prescribe it.
Vets, Veterinary Behaviorists, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists: what’s the difference?
This can be a confusing topic. Some trainers may use the vague title of “behaviorist” but it’s important to look into any professional’s credentials.
Veterinarians are the doctors you take your dog to for regular checkups and visits. To become a veterinarian, one must complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM or VMD) degree at an accredited college of veterinary medicine. A veterinarian does not necessarily have any special training in animal behavior.
Veterinary behaviorists, according to the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, are “licensed veterinarians who have graduated from a recognized college of veterinary medicine and completed at least one year of internship or primary care practice.”
Also according to the ACVB, veterinary behaviorists “have also undergone additional behavior-specific training which includes at least 3 years of case supervision by an established Diplomate, conducting original behavior research which earns publication in a peer reviewed journal, authored 3 formal case reports that were approved by a review committee of Diplomates, and passed a rigorous 2-day Board Examination.”
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs), according to the AKC, “have a doctorate in biological or behavioral science with five years of professional experience in the field.” They are certified by the Animal Behavior Society, but they are not veterinarians.
If you can find a Veterinary Behaviorist in your area, that should be your first choice for a professional when you are looking into medicating your dog. If you cannot find one, find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who will work directly with your vet to make sure the right medication and dosage is being prescribed for your dog’s type of anxiety.
Signs of canine anxiety
Signs of anxiety include:
- Urination or defecation in the house
- Destructive behaviors
- Compulsive or repetitive behaviors
- Excessive barking
It’s normal for a dog to feel anxious in certain situations, like if they feel threatened by a person or another dog, or if you have recently moved or made another big change in your and your dog’s lives. When a dog is perpetually anxious, that’s when it becomes a problem.
When does medication help dogs?
Medication is generally used as a last resort, after a dog has been through training and other behavior modification. It is not guaranteed to be effective for any dog, but it might help extremely anxious dogs, especially when used in combination with behavior modification techniques. It’s difficult to predict which dogs it will be effective for, and, just like with people, you might have to try a few different medications before finding one that works.
What does not count as anxiety for dogs?
- Pain or illness: Some dogs might display symptoms that look like anxiety when they are actually in pain or feel ill. Take your dog to the vet to rule out pain or illness before beginning medication.
- Reactivity: A reactive dog is one who has an extreme reaction to a certain stimulus or stimuli. Typically, a reactive dog is responding to a specific trigger, and the response will typically end when the trigger is no longer around (for instance, once the dog on the other side of the street is out of sight). Anxious dogs might be responding to specific stimuli, or their anxiety might be more generalized. In either case, an anxious dog will typically stay anxious for a long time, and it might not be clear what the cause was in the first place.
- Excess energy: At times, it can be easy to confuse an overly energetic dog with an anxious dog. An energetic dog might display similar behaviors, like excessive barking or destroying your things. If your dog is young or hasn’t gotten enough exercise lately, you might have an overly energetic dog on your hands. If you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to consult with your trainer or behaviorist to see if they think your dog is anxious or overly energetic.
- Excitement: Similarly, a dog who is very excited might bark, jump or pant. Look at your dog’s body language for clues to whether your dog is anxious or excited. If your dog has a relaxed stance, a wiggling butt and their head held high, they’re probably excited. If they have a tucked tail, are licking their lips or furrowing their brow, they are probably in a state of worry or stress. (Note that it’s normal for dogs to be worried or stressed sometimes, it’s when they are anxious all or most of the time, for no apparent reason, that it’s a problem.)
When should a dog parent consider medication for their dog?
A dog parent should consider medication after all other avenues have been explored, and after consulting with both their vet and dog trainer (or behaviorist). Always try training and behavior modification first, and only turn to medication if that doesn’t work. If your dog does go on medication, you will still need to work with a trainer to help your dog with behavior modification, in combination with the medicine.
Does medication for dogs actually work?
It’s tough to say definitively. In one study on dogs with “storm phobia,” a combination of clomipramine and alprazolam (two anti-anxiety medications) and behavior modification yielded improvement in 30 of the 32 dogs that completed the study. Studies like this suggest that medication combined with behavior modification might be a promising solution. However, there isn’t much large-scale scientific research into the topic yet, and results reported by dog owners vary greatly from dog to dog. There is no real way to figure out whether medication will work for your dog without trying it.
Is medication a permanent solution?
Dr. Cathy Alinovi, DVM, tells writer Kristina Lotz at I Heart Dogs that medication alone won’t yield results. Dr. Alinovi recommends pairing the medication with behavior training. If you do that, she says, you might later be able to wean your dog off the medication. There is also the chance that your dog will stay on it permanently—it’s impossible to say, because it will vary based on the dog. In any case, medication alone is not a permanent solution—it must be combined with behavior modification.
Pros and cons of medication for dogs
Pros and cons vary by type of medication, which we’ll get into below, but here’s a list of some of them to consider:
- The possibility of decreased anxiety
- Generally affordable
- Easy to administer (as long as your dog isn’t suspicious of pills)
- Some medications may help with obsessive behaviors
Cons and considerations:
- Some medications, like Prozac, take four to six weeks to kick in
- Medications may have physical side effects, such as upset stomach or lethargy
- Some medications can’t be given to dogs with pre-existing conditions like glaucoma or heart disease
- Some medications may interact with other medications
Types of canine anxiety medications
There are a few different classes of mood medications for dogs:
Tricyclic antidepressants increase serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain, and will take at least several weeks to kick in. The most common tricyclic antidepressants are:
- Clomipramine (Clomicalm)
Note: tricyclic antidepressants should not be given to dogs with glaucoma or heart disease.
Selective Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs work by increasing serotonin in the brain (just as they do in humans). Like tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs will typically take 4-6 weeks to kick in. Some common SSRIs are:
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
SSRIs may cause drowsiness and can interact with other medications, so be sure to tell your vet about any other medications your dog is on.
Benzodiazepines depress activity in the central nervous system, thereby decreasing anxiety. They are taken as needed and do not have a “waiting period.” Some common benzodiazepines are:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
Alternatives to medication
Training: Training should always be tried first, and even if your dog does eventually go on medication, you’ll still need to use training in combination with the meds. Seek out a dog trainer or behaviorist who is experienced with anxious dogs. Some anxious dogs may respond well enough to training that they won’t need to go on medication.
Natural remedies: Some anecdotal evidence suggests that some dogs may respond to “natural” remedies, although there is no conclusive scientific evidence on the subject. Some natural remedies include:
- Supplements like Zylkene, L-theanine and L-tryptophan (taken orally)
- Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP): This pheromone is purported to be calming to dogs, and is available in a few different formats, including collars and diffusers for the home.
- Acupuncture: Again, there is no conclusive evidence on this, but some people believe that acupuncture has helped their dogs with anxiety. Be sure to check with your vet first and see if they can recommend a reputable dog acupuncturist.
- Anxiety wraps: The Thundershirt and similar products can help your dog feel calmer by using soothing pressure. You can also make your own anxiety wrap.
CBD: CBD is an emerging treatment for various ailments in humans as well as animals. CBD stands for cannabidiol, a component in hemp and marijuana. CBD does not contain THC, which is the psychoactive component in marijuana, and will not make your pet “high.” Research into CBD and dogs is limited, but proponents claim that CBD oils and treats have helped reduce anxiety in their dogs. Keep in mind that the CBD pet product industry is not well-regulated, so use caution and remember that your results may vary.
- Exercise: Before you try medication, try exercising your dog more (as long as they don’t have a heart condition or other condition that would preclude this). Some dogs become anxious when they don’t get enough exercise. Just like in humans, exercise can greatly help relieve stress in dogs.
- Mental stimulation: Similarly, dogs benefit greatly from mental stimulation. Try providing your dog with things like puzzle toys or agility courses, and see if the extra mental stimulation has any effect on their anxiety.
- Diet: While there is not much research in this area, your dog’s diet is one consideration in helping them feel their best. Lower-grade (generally cheaper) foods may not provide as much nutrition as higher-grade foods, and inadequate nutrition can contribute to a dog feeling bad, which may lead to behaving irregularly. It’s a good idea to ask your vet what food they would recommend for your dog. You can also check out the American College of Veterinary Nutrition’s nutrition resources.
- Trigger avoidance: depending on the source of your dog’s anxiety, you might be able to help them by avoiding or reducing exposure to their anxiety triggers. For example, if your dog’s anxiety seems to be triggered by high-pitched noises, there may be a spot in the house where your dog can hang out and be exposed to fewer noises. However, this is dependent upon being able to discern what your dog is anxious about, and won’t be an option with dogs with more generalized anxiety.
Remember to always try training first, and that if your dog goes on medication, you will need to still train him in conjunction. Medication alone won’t “fix” your dog’s anxiety, but it can be a useful tool for severely anxious dogs.
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by certified, positive-only trainers.
This is the certified trainer that reviewed this article:
Founder – K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer – Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies