Should Dogs Being Given Medication for Behavioral Problems?

While visiting the human doctor recently for a yearly checkup, a conversation ensued about dogs that led to the topic of giving a dog medication for behavioral problems.

The doctor explained that her dog continually had behavioral issues: He was nervous, scared, and in her words, “not trainable” from one supposed trainer after another. She reported that anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications were tried on the dog as well. Nothing worked and after she had a baby, the dog was relinquished to a new home. (by the way, he’s thriving now, but I digress).

Should dogs take medications for behavioral problems

Behavior Modification

Whenever a dog is exhibiting signs of a behavioral issue, a modification of that undesired behavior is the solution. How an individual chooses to correct the undesired behavior is a hotly contested debate depending on the person and his or her training style.

Positive reinforcement is always the key. Here at Fidose of Reality we advocate for and believe solely in the power of positive reinforcement. There are some behavioral issues that can be controlled when other attempts at correction have failed. Additionally, sometimes medication can enhance the efficacy of the behavioral modification.

The experts at Tufts University agree, stating, “Excessively harsh corrections at the very least may teach your dog that you are not trustworthy and at the very worst could make your dog fearful or even aggressive.

Medication for Behavioral Problems Examples

Dog parents who choose medication for a behavioral issue generally do so to treat fears, phobias, anxiety and/or aggression.

According to webMD, there are different types of medicines usually used to treat behavior problems in dogs, and these include:

  • Benzodiazepines (BZs);
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs);
  • Ttricyclic antidepressants (TCAs);
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs);

This is a table that shows some of the different behavioral problems in dogs and how they have been treated with behavior change training AND medication, courtesy webMD:

Dog behavioral medications webmd

Is Medication Right For Your Dog?

In our case, our Cocker Spaniel experiences extreme distress during the fourth of July holiday. When Dexter first entered our lives, he had zero fear of loud sounds such as fireworks and/or thunderstorms.

One day while out for a walk during the fourth of July time of period, a group of kids tossed a pack of firecrackers our way and ran. Well, this is the exact moment that my dog changed from happy go lucky and undisturbed by sounds into a shaking, seriously fearful dog when the fireworks explode.

We tried a variety of things from calming jackets to holistic remedies with no avail. Once a year, we break out the Xanax, a benzodiazepine, as prescribed by the veterinarian.

It is temporary, it helps take the edge off, and it is very short term, a day or two at the most.

Each dog, like each person, has a different story. Medicating a dog for the sake of convenience and because you do not want to try and help the dog through some positive means of reinforcement with an experienced kind professional is not a good plan.

NEVER give a dog human medication nor guess at a dose, as the dosing of the drug should only be dispensed by your pet’s veterinarian.

Cocker veterinarian

Genomic Causes

Results from a genomic study out of Tufts University in 2016 has identified genetic pathways that exacerbate severity of canine compulsive disorder in Doberman Pinschers, a discovery that could lead to better therapies for obsessive compulsive disorder in people.

“Dogs naturally suffer complex diseases, including mental disorders that are similar to those in humans. Among those is canine compulsive disorder (CCD), the counterpart to human obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD),” says the study’s first and corresponding author Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVA, DACVB, professor in clinical sciences and section head and program director of animal behavior at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

What If Everything Else Fails?

One of our go-to resources for dog health news and information is the Merck Veterinary Manual. In their current online resource, Merck states, “Drug treatment for almost any behavior change is most useful when combined with behavior modification.”

Further, they state that if medication is used without behavior modification or environmental changes (and even when it is used with these techniques in some cases), the unwanted behavior may return once the medication is discontinued. Some problems may require treatment for a year or longer. In most cases medication is used for a period of several months.

Aggression in dogs is also a hot topic. Merck agrees in that a qualified veterinarian should evaluate the risk of future injury by an aggressive dog, identify any triggers for aggression, and formulate a plan of changing the behavior from there. The same goes for high energy dogs: If a dog is bred or has developed to be high energy, there are ways to channel that energy. Give the dog a task, allow him to be a dog and release that energy, etc. Sedating or medicating a dog who is simply being who he or she is, such as a high strung border collie, is just wrong. As their guardians, we owe it to the dog to allow them to be the best possible version of themselves.

Dog in car

Bottom Line

To create a plan of action for a dog dubbed to have behavioral problems, dog parents should:

  1. Determine the source of the behavioral problem. For example, if a dog is left alone for a large part of the day and he is a chewer or a barker in your absence, the problem may be separation anxiety. There are many resources available to treat separation anxiety without medication. Investigate and determine the problem and other viable options before diving right into medication.
  2. Determine what the behavior problem, in general, is. Diagnosing a behavioral problem in a dog is not as easy as 1-2-3. Take video of the questionable behavior when possible and discuss the behavior and any surrounding circumstances with your dog’s veterinarian. Merck has a wonderful resource to help with diagnosing and getting behavioral problem help for dogs.
  3. Develop a plan with your dog’s veterinarian. Do not try to self-diagnose, but rather work in tandem with the vet to find the right course of treatment. If medications are used to modify a dog’s undesired behavior in conjunction with positive reinforcement training, the first medication or first dosage amount may need to change and/or be titrated. Again, each dog, like each human being, is different.

medicine versus mom

Medicine Vs. Mom

In conjunction with former veterinary technician, Rachel Sheppard, Fidose of Reality has teamed up with her on My Kids Have Paws blog, for her perspective on using medication to treat behavioral problems in dogs.

Click on over to read her take on this issue, then weigh in below in the comments.

What are your thoughts on using medication in dogs with behavioral problems?

 

Comments

  1. We here so many people using Prozac and other meds for dogs. It initially sounded crazy but we are not in their position to judge. Maybe if we attempted to curb the behavior and had no results at all we would be giving the meds too
    Lily & Edward

  2. I always believe training comes first and people tend to over medicate both themselves and animals in general. For fears such as fireworks I think it makes sense because it can be nearly impossible to set up a good training regimen for overcoming the fear. For other behavioral things though I think a strict training program is the solution whereas medication is just a bandaid – it doesn’t fix the problem just temporarily dampens the symptoms of the behavior.

    I’ve personally known dogs who were medicated for years, then finally rehomed due to their issues – retrained, and boom! A much happier, better dog with little to no more behavioral issues due to their new family actually working with them as opposed to taking the easy way out. I think for behavioral issues if you can’t work with the dog and your solution is medication the dog would be happier and healthier if you rehomed the dog to someone who was both willing and able to work on training the dog. as opposed to keeping the dog out of pride.

    • I agree with you. For something such as fireworks it might be an option – but other than that I believe training is the answer. I absolutely wouldn’t feed my dog anything because of behavioral problems. But maybe that’s just me…

      /Adam – The Doggy Institute

  3. I also knew a dog who was medicated due to “aggression”, the family that adopted her ended up returning her to the rescue because they couldn’t handle her even on meds and she ended up killing the family cat. The dog wasn’t aggressive though, just had a high prey drive and was reactive towards other dogs. I kept track of her though and her new family worked on her reactive behavior, got her off meds and now she is much better around other dogs. She’s calmer and more tolerant, small animals are still a struggle for her but she isn’t out of control like everyone thought she’d be without the meds.

  4. I love Merck Manuals! They can be so helpful for referencing information. Behavior challenges are a very complicated topic and one that many pet parents experience. Just as you stated, it’s important to work with your veterinarian to formulate a plan that uses multiple tactics!

  5. Great info, I sent this to my hubby as well. Our older dog is so anxious and rends to want to snap when he is scared. We have wondered about what to do and what may work.
    Thanks for this informative piece.

  6. I think that using medication on your dog for behavioral issues should be used as a last resort. I agree that a plan needs to be put in place and all aspects of the dogs behavior need to be evaluated.

  7. I am not opposed to the Xanax as prescribed by a Vet for those awful fireworks days. We have a big dog who has to come inside on those fireworks holidays. We generally have to sit on the floor and calm him for extended periods of time.
    We trust our Vet with such big decisions but are open to meds which will help our fur babies with the least amount of or no side effects.

  8. I’ve actually never heard of giving pets medication before. This is very eye opening. Our small chihuahua has separation issues and I think this might could be an option for us when we are not at home! Thanks for sharing.

  9. You always have the most interesting post. I didn’t know people actually gave their pets medicine fro behavioral issues.

  10. I think you put it right. It really depends on the problem and how it arose. Only a doctor can really say what they should receive, I would trust their opinion.

  11. NO NO NO!!!! OMG! I am so opposed to medicating for these issues! There is no way I would ever medicate my dogs for this! I do not like giving my pups medications to start with. Training does help, but takes forever – admittedly. Yet, I am with dogs that are severely afraid and anxious of sounds and separation. We just deal with it with natural means such as turning up the TV, vest, applying calming essential oils to collars, etc. They need to learn that it will not hurt them. Being sedated only relieves for the moment. It does not correct the problem! The problem will remain – not good 🙁 I prefer to look for ways to calm them down in a natural way to ride it out.

  12. Quite a good topic. I think in the case of fireworks, it is fine to give a dog something to help them relax if they are really that stressed out. For behavior, I don’t see it working all that well. I know a lot of dogs who see behaviorists and are on medications but they are not doing a whole lot of good, or the dog walks around like a zombie. We feel training is the best method, and if that doesn’t work, modify your lifestyle to make it work for the dog. Medication we think in most cases is a last resort and even then may not work all that well. Our society is so “quick fix” oriented, I think people want the easy way out but it is not always best for the dog.

  13. Hello!! This is a great post. My pup has some behavioral problems as well and from the sound of it, it seems like he experiences all the ones listed in the chart above. Also, at times, he has some type of epilepsy episodes. They are truly scary. The second episode he had was pretty bad, so we took him to the vet. They said we should put him on some type of medication. This is something he will have to take for the rest of his life. We weren’t sure if he should’ve been diagnosed with epilepsy just yet because he’s still young and maybe the issue was dehydration. However, today actually, he had another very mild episode. I think its time to go back to the vet and try to create a health plan for him.
    Thank you so much for posting this, its very informative and eye opening!

    Take care,
    Lucy

  14. Any successful behavior modification relies on changing the underlying emotion. Change the emotion – change the behavior. Medications can be instrumental in facilitating that process.

  15. I believe just like with humans medicine can be a part of the treatment plan, but behavioral/ environmental changes must also occur for the best approach. It is all just part of the pie puzzle. Thanks for sharing this great post.

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