While many veterinarians, behaviorists, and trainers are familiar with using medication to treat behavioral problems in dogs, it is still something that many dog lovers are suspicious about. I have met many people who feel that using behavioral medications on dogs is unwarranted. Some feel that using medications like this is a cop out; that you are merely drugging a dog in order to avoid putting in the training necessary to deal with problem behaviors. Others feel that the veterinary & drug industries are just padding their coffers at the owners and the dogs expense. And as always there is still a stigma, even in humans about using medication for behavior issues.
Our guest this week is Dr. Lorie Huston. Dr. Huston has more than 20 years experience as a veterinarian and is well versed in the field of behavioral medications in dogs. She agreed to address some of the myths and facts surrounding behavioral medications in dogs.
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DLD: What are some of the behavioral issues that medications can address?
Dr. Huston: Dogs suffer from separation anxiety, noise phobias (such as fear of thunderstorms or fireworks) and compulsive disorders of many different types. Many dogs with these types of disorders become destructive and can even create health hazards for themselves. Unfortunately, the household destruction that frequently accompanies separation anxiety and other behavioral disorders is one of the most common reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters, abandoned or euthanized outright.
The most commonly used behavioral medications, Reconcile and Clomicalm, are approved (by the FDA) for use in canine separation anxiety. However, in real world practice, they are also used for a variety of other behavioral issues, such as aggression, phobias and compulsive disorders. It is worth noting that while use of these medications to treat separation anxiety, phobias and other compulsive disorders is widely accepted their use in cases of aggression remains more controversial because of the dangers that some of our more aggressive dogs can pose to human safety. While I’m not suggesting that these aggressive dogs be abandoned or “written off”, at the same time, threats to human safety are serious matters and must be properly addressed.
DLD: Aren’t these medications just a cop out? A way to say I don’t want to deal with my dog so I will just drug it?
Dr. Huston: No, these medications, if used appropriately, are far from being a “cop out”. They are a means of providing relief for your dog’s anxieties and making your dog more receptive to learning new life skills to replace the undesirable habits/traits. However, these drugs should never be used as a sole means of dealing with a behavioral problem. This type of usage is inappropriate and certainly could be called a “cop out”. They should always be used together with a behavior modification training program designed to teach your dog to behave in an appropriate fashion to challenges in his/her life or environment. These types of behavioral modification programs require a great deal of commitment, time and effort and are definitely not a “cop out”.
DLD: Are these medications the same as the ones used in humans, or are the developed specifically for dogs?
Dr. Huston: These medications are the same as those used in people. Reconcile (fluoxetine) is the same as Prozac. Clomicalm (clomipramine) is the same medication as Clopram, Clopress, Anafranil. However, these medications have been packaged in dosage sizes that are easily dosed for canine use. They are also being used in feline behavioral medicine.
Because Reconcile and Clomicalm take time to build up a blood level that is effective in relieving anxiety, other medications may be used as “rescue drugs” in situations requiring rapid anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects. These medications would include drugs such as alprazolam (aka Xanax) and diazepam (aka Valium).
One medication that was commonly used in the past as a sedative but is no longer recommended in situations where anxiolytic effects are required is acepromazine. Acepromazine will sedate a dog nicely but will not calm the dog at the same time and may actually make the dog’s condition worse because the dog will still be frightened but unable to react to the frightening stimuli.
DLD: When should an owner consider approaching their veterinarian about behavioral issues?
Dr. Huston: If anxiety or other behavioral disorders are affecting the quality of your dog’s life or interfering with the human-animal bond between you and your dog, it is time to talk to your veterinarian about behavior modification and possibly about behavior modification drugs. Behavior modification can be accomplished in the absence of drugs as well. But for some dogs, the drugs will speed the rehabilitation by making the learning process easier for them.
DLD: Are these behavioral issues dealt with simply through medication, or are there other components?
Dr. Huston: Behavior modification training is always an essential part of using these drugs. These behavior modification training techniques take time and effort to teach. If you are unable or unwilling to pursue behavior modification training, behavior modification drugs are not appropriate.
DLD: Will using these medications require more trips to the vets office?
Dr. Huston: Your dog will need to be seen periodically for examinations and possibly even blood testing to make certain the medications are not affecting your dog in an unforeseen or undesirable way. In addition, your veterinarian will probably also need to discuss your training progress and how your dog is doing overall while on these medications. The frequency of visits will vary from one situation to another though. You should consult your veterinarian regarding how often your dog will need to be seen and/or examined
DLD: Once on a dog is on behavioral meds, is he/she on them for life?
Dr. Huston: No, the idea is to teach your dog new behaviors while receiving these medications. Once these behaviors are learned and have successfully replaced the undesirable behaviors on a regular basis, the medications are generally discontinued. It is a good idea when discontinuing medications like Reconcile and Clomicalm to gradually taper the medications rather than stopping them abruptly.
DLD: Do I need to take my dog to a specialist, or is this something all vets are familiar with?
Dr. Huston: Some veterinarians are comfortable dealing with these drugs and others are not and may refer you to a veterinary behavioral specialist. In some cases, your veterinarian may feel comfortable prescribing the medications for you but may ask you to work with a dog trainer who is experienced in behavioral modification techniques simultaneously. In almost all cases, behavioral modification training should be a positive reward-based system free of any confrontational or punitive training methods.
DLD: How can I find out more about these medications and the behavioral issues they are used for?
Dr. Huston: I have written several articles that may be helpful. Fluoxetine for Dogs, Clomipramine in Dogs, Dogs Who are Scared of Thunderstorms, Positive Reinforcement Dog Training, Separation Anxiety and Your Dog, Training Methods for Canine Seperation Anxiety.
In addition, Reconcile’s website (http://www.reconcile.com/default.aspx) also has some helpful information relative to the medication itself and their recommended behavior modification training program for separation anxiety. Clomicalm also has a website (http://www.clomicalm.novartis.us/index.htm) that provides information about their product. They have a helpful FAQ’s page about separation anxiety.
DLD: Why are using these medications so controversial in dogs?
Dr. Huston: I’m not sure about the answer to this question. Perhaps it is related to the stigma that is often (wrongly) associated with the use of these medications in people. Unfortunately, people requiring antidepressants or anxiolytic medications are sometimes incorrectly perceived as being “crazy” or “unstable”. Perhaps it is related to the fact that many people do not like the idea of medicating or sedating their dog. Still others may not fully understand how and why these drugs are used in dogs. As stated previously, these medications are not appropriate for all pets. Owners electing to use these medications must also commit to extensive training and behavior modification for their dog. Not all pet owners are equal to these challenges. However, these medications can provide an alternative to surrendering a pet with serious behavioral issues and may, in some cases, prove to be a means of saving that dog’s life by giving the dog owner options preferable to surrender or abandonment.
Dr. Lorie Huston is a veterinarian with over 20 years experience and is the author of the popular blog The Pet Health Care Gazette.
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