As a dog trainer, it is rare that I recommend people consult with their vets about the use of anxiety medications. Most dogs simply don’t need them. When I worked at a big box store, I never once ran across a dog who I thought needed meds. However, now that I work exclusively with people who have dogs with behavior issues, I naturally see more dogs that might benefit from a little chemical help.
Thankfully, many of these dogs improve over the course of a six-week class. So much so, in fact, that by the end I do not feel the need to refer them for a medication consultation. For some, I mention that if their progress stalls out or if their dog regresses, they might want to consider using meds, but it’s more to educate them about their options than a serious recommendation.
But then there are the dogs that do not improve, or who get worse. The dogs who are so hypervigilant that they cannot learn anything in class. The dogs who cannot eat or otherwise be distracted from the mere sound of another dog. The dogs, in other words, who probably could benefit from the use of medication.
It’s a fine line I walk. I am not a vet, and as a result, I cannot tell someone that their dog needs medication. I cannot diagnose their dog with a clinical disorder. I cannot tell them which medication is right for their dog, nor the dosage. But I can urge them to consult with someone who can.
Some people- bless them- follow up on my recommendation. But others steadfastly refuse. Why? There are a number of reasons- probably as many as there are owners- but here are what I think are the top five… and my response to them.
1. Treating animals with human medication is silly and anthropomorphic.
I’ve heard this one a lot, and on the surface, it makes sense. They are dogs, not people. Why would we use human treatments? The funny thing is, though, that this objection is only raised in relation to behavior meds. The truth is, there are lots of medicines that have both veterinary and human applications. Antibiotics are an obvious example, but plenty of dogs take thyroid medications, insulin, pain meds, or allergy pills. In fact, this is so common that several major (human) pharmacies even have a pet prescription savings plan!
What’s more, I do not think it is anthropomorphic in the least to think an animal can suffer from anxiety. They have nearly identical brain structures to ours, so it seems not only possible, but also quite likely, that they might suffer from some of the same mental disorders that we humans do.
2. All vets want to do is prescribe medication. Everyone knows that meds are overprescribed in this country!
I’m sure this objection is a carryover from human medicine- it’s trendy to say that doctors overdiagnose and overprescribe ADHD meds, for example- but as a social worker who works with children, I have to say I see far more kids who could benefit from medications, but aren’t on them, than kids who are on them and shouldn’t be.
Adding to that, when I first explored the concept of medication for my own anxious dog, my general practice vet said she didn’t need them. Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I’ve heard the same story from plenty of other people.
This objection is also why I have a personal preference for referring people to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. My experience has been that they do not prescribe meds to every dog that walks through their doors. In fact, the last person I referred was told that their dog would not benefit from medication.
3. I’m worried about the side effects. I’ve heard these meds can hurt my dog, or cause his personality to change.
This is a very valid concern. You should not walk into medication use blindly. When you consult with a veterinarian about medication use, you should ask what the side effects might be, as well as potential drug interactions. Your vet should also give you information on when and how to follow-up, and advise you regarding blood work to monitor your dog’s systemic function.
That said, these drugs have been well-studied and considered generally safe. Every dog will react differently of course, but I personally believe it is worth the risk, especially when you consider that the effects of long-term anxiety on the body may be even more detrimental than the side-effects of medication. A quick google search will reveal that the effects of untreated stress include a compromised immune system, gastrointestinal distress, heart problems, and musculoskeletal pain.
So far as personality change, this should not happen. If your dog seems drugged, zombie-like, or somehow different, he may be on the wrong medication or the wrong dose. Talk to your vet. My dog is different on medication, it’s true, but it’s like a radio: the volume has not been turned down at all. Rather, the static of anxiety has been filtered out so that her personality can come through more clearly.
4. It’s too expensive. Times are tough, and I just can’t afford it.
It’s true, the initial appointment, follow-ups, blood work, and even the cost of the medication itself all add up. But so is the cost of ongoing training. My dog and I spent two years in weekly training classes before trying medication. After starting meds, she was able to graduate within six months.
Also, keep in mind that the ongoing cost of medication does not need to be high. Many of the meds prescribed for anxiety have a generic equivalent; my dog’s medication costs less than $10 a month. Shop around for the best price- some drugs can be as low as $4 a month at the right pharmacy.
5. But what will people think? I don’t want people to think my dog is crazy. For that matter, I don’t want people to think I’m crazy for doing this!
I think this is the hardest objection to overcome. The social stigma surrounding mental health concerns and treatment is strong for humans and animals alike. Although we don’t think people (or animals) are “less than” if they have diabetes, cancer, or thyroid problems, we look down on them if they have depression, anxiety, or another mental illness.
Look, either way, it’s a physical problem. Sometimes it’s in the heart, and sometimes it’s in the brain. Illness can be treated no matter what part of the body is causing it, and I don’t think we should avoid treating our sick dogs just because it’s in the brain.
This is also why I am so honest and transparent in this blog. I want people to know there is no shame in using medication if that’s what’s right for your dog (or yourself!). I don’t think it should be the first thing you try, but I don’t think it should be your last resort, either. Medication can be a very helpful addition to any well thought out behavior modification plan.
People often email me, telling me that my blog inspired them to seek medication for their own dogs. Almost every one of them tell me that the only regret they have is waiting so long to do it. I share the same sentiment. I can’t believe I wasted so much time, and let my dog suffer with so much anxiety, because of my own pre-conceived notions of what it would mean to give my dog medication.
So, consider your options carefully. Ask questions. You’re right to be hesitant- you care about your dog, after all, and just want what’s best for him- but be open to the idea that medication might be just what he needs.