When Your Dog Is On The Same Meds as You

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Somehow I know only peripherally posted this meme on social media post recently:

“Raise your hand if you and your dog take the same anxiety medication!”

And then, sadly, a number of people had commented that anyone who did raise their hands should consider the possibility that they were making their dog neurotic. 

Behavior-modifying drugs have come into greater use in veterinary medicine for dogs with chronic anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, separation anxiety, some types of aggression, and more. But while an argument might be made that humans are prescribed drugs such as antidepressants too frequently (it’s been estimated that almost 13% of Americans take antidepressants), my experience is that these life-altering drugs are still vastly underutilized by veterinarians as a vital adjunct to a behavior-modification program.

In fact, veterinarians seem to be much more clear than doctors who prescribe drugs for human patients that behavior-altering drugs should be used only as an adjunct to behavior modification, not as a replacement. In contrast – and, again, in my experience – humans are often prescribed anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications without any accompanying recommendations for cognitive behavioral therapy or other type of psychotherapy, where the patient might receive tips on reducing stress, avoiding triggers that increase stress, and other life-management strategies that reduce depression or anxiety.

Behavior-modifying drugs used to be highly stigmatized in our society, but as more people have found them to be helpful for coping in our modern world, they have received greater acceptance. However, their use is still fairly stigmatized by many pet owners.

I’ve been to dozens of professional dog training and veterinary medicine conferences, and every veterinary behavior expert whose presentations touched on aberrant canine behavior has promoted the efficacy of the concurrent use of behavior-modifying drugs and a behavior-modification program overseen by an educated trainer. And I’ve seen this approach work wonders.

Years ago, my son and I arranged for a “trial weekend” with a Jack Russell Terrier named Chase; Chase’s owner was advertising him on Craigslist as “free to a good home” after a relationship breakup with the usual “not enough time” justification. I knew after the first afternoon spent with Chase that he was not the right dog for our family: he wasn’t at all affiliative or particularly friendly; you couldn’t put him in a car unless he was in a crate, otherwise he would spin and scream and bite at the air – or anyone who tried to restrain him – the moment he jumped into a car; he could and did jump five-foot fences from a standstill; and he was definitely going to eat our cat if he possibly could. He was also so defensive – undoubtedly having been subjected to physical punishment – that if he perceived any threat to himself, he’d go on the offensive, growling and launching himself at whomever was near. Not a nice family dog!

But when I tried to contact the owner to let him know that at the end of the weekend, we would be bringing the dog back to him, he essentially responded, “Ha ha, no backsies!” (What he actually said was, “Oh, so sorry, you guys sounded perfect and I just moved into a new place and can’t take him back…but I would understand if you had to take him to a shelter.” WOW!)

To make a long story short, I started trying to find a new home for Chase while simultaneously trying to figure out what circumstances triggered his manic behaviors. I ultimately found him a home with a couple who were huge fans of JRTs and who were willing to do anything it might take to make Chase a happier and more pleasant dog to live with. They gave me regular updates for over a year, reporting when they found a force-free trainer, and then a behavior-savvy veterinarian who prescribed fluoxetine, better known as Prozac – and that was the magic key that finally helped Chase transform into a nice dog. Under the constant influence of that medication, he no longer perceived random human movements as potential punishments, he could hear cues for behavior as the requests that they were (as opposed to demands that he do something or else!), and he could focus and relax in the world, instead of constantly scanning his environment for things to react to.

Chase isn’t the only dog I’ve seen whose life was transformed for the better by a behavior-modifying medication, but his transformation was the most dramatic. These medications literally save the lives of humans and dogs, and should never be ridiculed or discounted in any situation where needed.

Have you known a dog whose life was improved with behavior-altering medication? Please share!

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