The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists estimates that 17 percent of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Related to anxiety are phobias, aggression, and obsessive-compulsive behavior, and while these make your dog miserable, these disorders are also expensive. Anxious episodes lead to significant property damage and vet bills if your dog ends up hurting themselves during anxious moments.
Behavior modification is always the first step in treating severe anxiety, but some dogs need medication to further manage their anxiety. A lot of the medications used with an anxiety diagnosis are the same medications prescribed to humans with anxiety and depression.
Giving Benzodiapezines to Dogs
If you have heard of Valium (diazepam), then you’re semi-familiar with this family of drugs. In human medicine, they’re mainly used to treat anxiety because they have a sedative effect on the brain. Benzodiazepines take effect very quickly, so they’re good for dogs who have noise phobias. Dogs scared of thunder or fireworks can be given a benzodiazepine to calm their anxiety before a storm or fireworks show starts.
Unlike other anti-anxiety or -depression medications that need to be taken consistently for several weeks until they start to work, benzodiazepines can be used as needed. Ativan (lorazepam) is an alternative to Valium because it puts less stress on the liver. Side effects are minimal unless the dog overdoses on the drug somehow.
Since it’s a benzodiazepine, it’s supposed to have a sedative effect, but some dogs actually become hyperactive with the medication. This doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t working, but it’s something to talk to your vet about. Because it is a stronger drug, it’s unlikely a vet will prescribe this for long-term use.
Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCA) and Dogs
This group of antidepressants increases the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, alleviating anxiety, decreasing aggressive behavior in certain dogs, and treating obsessive-compulsive disorders. Clomipramine (Clomicalm) is the TCA given most often to dogs, and it’s only available with a veterinary prescription.
It has a light sedative effect, but it’s pronounced enough that it shouldn’t be used on working dogs. Most owners are given a Clomicalm prescription because their dog suffers from severe separation anxiety. When the prescription is used with a training program, you’ll typically see great strides in the severity of your dog’s separation anxiety.
Amitriptyline (Elavil) is another TCA effective in treating anxiety disorders. Like Clomicalm, it’s most effective when administered in conjunction with behavioral training. It’s an effective drug, but it generally doesn’t make a difference if there isn’t any behavior modification accompanying it. It should never be prescribed to dogs with seizure disorders or a history of seizures because it can induce seizures in some dogs.
Dog’s Reactions to SSRIs
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed family of medication for depression and anxiety. They have a low incidence of addiction and a high margin of safety. They increase the amount of serotonin (a feel-good hormone) to the brain, thus effectively decreasing anxiety.
SSRI drugs are most commonly given to dogs with separation anxiety, phobia disorders, and obsessive-compulsive behavior (excessive licking, obsessive tail wagging, etc). Prozac (fluoxetine) is the most popular SSRI given to dogs, and it even has a special veterinary formulation called Reconcile.
When used with behavior modification training, it works well to treat separation anxiety or obsessive behaviors. Unlike benzodiazepines, it has to be given consistently every day for it to work, and it can take two to three weeks to see an improvement.
Side effects are minimal and typically go away once the dog’s body adjusts to the drug. Lack of appetite is the most common, so you need to ensure their dog is getting enough to eat if their appetite starts to decrease. Other dogs experience vomiting or diarrhea, restlessness, panting, and aggression.
Zoloft (sertraline) is an alternative to Prozac/Reconcile. While it isn’t FDA-approved for use in dogs, vets will prescribe it as an off-label drug. Unlike Prozac, it can be used to treat aggression in some dogs because it doesn’t cause aggression like Prozac can. If your dog is an obsessive licker, Zoloft could be a treatment option. Fearful dogs also show improvement with a Zoloft regimen. It’s safe in healthy dogs, but it should be avoided in dogs with liver disease, blood disorders, or a history of seizures.
However, similar to Prozac, Zoloft is the most effective when it’s used in combination with behavior modification and training. Zoloft is most effective in humans when it’s used with talk therapy, so consider training your dog’s therapy. Paxil (paroxetine) is another SSRI prescribed to dogs with aggression, anxiety, and compulsive behavioral problems. It is very similar chemically to Prozac, but it treats aggression instead of causing it. It’s not recommended for senior dogs, dogs with a history of blood disorders, or dogs diagnosed with epilepsy.
A lack of appetite and increased thirst as the most common side effects. Diarrhea and vomiting are also common when the drug is still new to your dog’s system. None of these are cause for concern unless they become so serious that they affect your dog’s quality of life. However, anything you see as a side effect should be reported to your veterinarian right away.
While these human medications are approved for use in dogs, it doesn’t mean you can share your SSRI prescription with your dog. Your dose is completely different from what your dog’s should be, and while safe, too much of certain medications lead to dangerous overdoses that can kill your dog or permanently damage their liver and kidneys.
If training hasn’t helped your dog’s anxiety or other anxiety-related disorders, then it’s time to talk to your veterinarian about pharmaceutical options.
Natural Anxiety Remedies
If your dog has separation anxiety but it isn’t to the point of “Get this dog some Prozac, stat!”, then you have some natural remedies at your disposal. Their efficacy is hotly debated among medical professionals, but when used properly, these are all safe. Whether they’ll work or not depends on your dog.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) isn’t a “natural” remedy, but it doesn’t require a veterinary visit. If you’ve ever taken Benadryl, then you know it has a strong sedative effect. This happens with dogs, too, so it’s a good option for situational anxiety like car rides, thunderstorms, or the 4th of July. The dose depends on your dog’s weight, overall health, and the severity of their anxiety, so don’t dose your dog without consulting with your veterinarian first.
Rescue Remedy is a homeopathic anxiety remedy used in both animals and humans. It isn’t for dogs with chronic anxiety, but it’s an option for quieting your dog during certain anxiety-triggering situations like going to the vet or groomer. The website recommends Rescue Remedy for treating seizures, but you should never give your seizure-prone dog any medication that isn’t strictly monitored by your veterinarian.
Rescue Remedy is a combination of five Bach Flower remedies to ease stress and promote a feeling of well-being. The different ingredients target animals that have gone through trauma, for situational phobias that induce panic or terror, obsessive behaviors, for dogs with extreme agitation or impatience, and even depression.
This is a fairly good option for dogs with minor anxiety in certain situations, but it isn’t recommended for dogs with serious anxiety, phobias, or severe obsessive compulsion.
Anxiety is a legitimate problem for dogs, and more vets and behaviorists are taking it as seriously as harried owners. When a dedicated training plan isn’t making a difference in your dog’s mental state, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with your vet to discuss the use of anti-anxiety medications.