Behaviour modification medications

Does my dog need medication? 

Separation Anxiety is the only behaviour disorder in dogs that has FDA-approved medication available specifically for its treatment. All other medications used (in Canada at this time) for behaviour disorders are given off-label. This tells us how serious this disorder can really be. 

“Does my dog need medication” is a very common question and we do address this with each of our individual clients when working through home alone issues. There are many layers to this question and there is no straight answer or one-answer-fits-all. In fact, we strongly suggest that our clients speak with their veterinarian about the options available, and if your veterinarian is not comfortable prescribing these medications (which is understandable as behaviour is a specialty and we cannot expect all vets to do absolutely everything, just like our GP does not act as a psychiatrist!) then a referral to a Veterinary Behaviourist is in order. 

After many discussions with Veterinarians and Veterinary Behaviourists, the general consensus is that any panic disorder that causes symptoms such as destruction, escape, self-harm, urination, defecation, hyper-salivation, and/or chronic stress and hyper-vigilance, is best treated with medication in conjunction with behaviour modification. In fact, many Veterinary Behaviourists will not attempt to modify separation anxiety without the use of a medication because they have seen how long it can take to modify with training alone. 

Can’t I just use natural supplements and remedies? 

What does “natural” mean? That is has been derived from a plant? That it has no added chemical properties?  That it has no side effects? That it safe to use in young puppies, old dogs, in conjunction with other medications, with dogs with other medical conditions? That it can be purchased over the counter without medical advice? 

“Natural” is a funny word and can be very misleading. We sometimes watch as clients test out various “natural supplements and remedies” and see marginal (placebo effect?) differences if anything at all. We see the time pass and the dog is still suffering and our progress is slow at best. We can try one thing after another, giving it our best shot, but resources like time and money will run out eventually and it will have been a waste of those resources on products that are not backed by science. 

Do some supplements and remedies work? I have no doubt that they can work for some dogs in some situations. I simply find that if we are dealing with true, clinical separation anxiety, I would sooner “throw the book at it” and work with what we know works, rather than spending all our time, money, and energy doing trial and error with products that are not backed by double-blind, peer-reviewed studies. 

I don’t want my dog to be a zombie or change their personality 

Nobody wants that! The bottom line is that the first two weeks on any psychotropic is generally where we are going to see side effects like lethargy or loss of appetite, but they usually pass. Beyond that, if your dog is a “zombie” or their personality changes (they become more aggressive or depressed), then a consultation with your Veterinarian or Veterinary Behaviourist is in order as it may not be the correct dosage, medication, or combination. 

Ask yourself: what could be worse than what you’re seeing right now? A dog who is chronically stressed to the point of destruction, losing control of their bladder and bowels, or self-harm, vs a dog who is relaxed, learning and coping, and perhaps significantly more relaxed for a couple of weeks as they adjust and catch up on that brain-healing sleep they need. 

I worry about the long-term health of my dog on a medication 

I agree! It’s important to make sure that your dog has had a full checkup with their Veterinarian, including blood work prior to starting any medication. Some Veterinarians will require blood work or a recheck every few months to ensure your dog is handling the medication as expected. 

If you are worried about the damage that a medication can do to a dog’s body and overall health, I encourage you to consider the fact that we know that chronic stress causes significant damage to vital organs and the brain. The general consensus in the industry is that chronic stress does more damage than an anxiety-reducing medication. 

Will my dog be on medication forever? 

Medication alone will not resolve this issue; it can simply speed up the process of modifying the behaviour challenge. No species can learn and retain information when they are chronically stressed, so with dogs who suffer from this panic disorder, it would be a shame to ask them to learn while they are in distress. The goal for all clients is to use medication as a training aid and once we have met our goals, we wean off under the direction of a Veterinarian. 

I don’t understand how it works and I’m uncomfortable 

That’s very common! It’s much like receiving a diagnosis at your family doctor’s office and being advised to take a medication – you really need to understand it in order to feel comfortable and to know what to look for to know if it’s working or not. 

We equate psychotropic medications for anxiety disorders to medications that treat physical illnesses. For example, if your dog were diagnosed with diabetes and your Veterinarian prescribed insulin, you would not likely bat an eye – you would know that this medication is very effective in treating this disease and that it would improve your dog’s health and quality of life.

If you don’t already have a fantastic, open relationship with your trusted Veterinarian, this is the time to develop one. Keep them in the loop and let them help you with all the knowledge and resources they have! 

Is it guaranteed to work? 

Just like with people, sometimes it takes a few tries and yes, trial and error can be challenging. As Dr Lynn Honeckman says, “Look at the allergy section in the pharmacy; if only Benadryl fixed everything. Sometimes it takes time to find the right one.” 

End the stigma.

We tend to have biases toward medications geared toward mental health – the invisible disease. We can end the stigma and give our dogs the relief they may require to be able to learn and retain information taught through training, if they need it! 

Speak with your veterinarian or connect with a Veterinary Behaviourist today if your dog is experiencing symptoms such as destruction, escape, self-harm, urination, defecation, hyper-salivation, and/or chronic stress and hyper-vigilance. 

Related Resources:

Finding a Veterinary Behaviourist

The material within this lesson is not intended as a replacement for advice from a Veterinarian or a Veterinary Behaviourist. We are not Veterinarians, nor is providing this information considered practising veterinary medicine without a license. This is not considered advice; it is considered basic information that can also be found on the internet and in books and other online courses and resources.See your veterinarian prior to embarking on any training plan and please do not rely on medical advice given from non-veterinarians, including information on “natural” products and/or supplements. These products can have side effects and can interact with other medications and/or conditions. 

Lessons in this Course: