This is your pet. This is your pet on anti-anxiety drugs. Any questions?

sad pet dogThe recent hospitalization of a woman at the hands of her pet chimp has raised questions about the use of human psychiatric medicines in animals, after the victim’s initial (and now retracted) statement that the chimp had been given Xanax to control his agitation. Apparently it’s more common than I’d have expected:

As recently as the early 1990s, it was practically unheard of to treat animal behavior problems with drugs. Today it’s routine.

Prozac, for example, has been used in a few zoos to treat wild animals, including Johari, an adult female gorilla at Ohio’s Toledo Zoo that had been prone to violent fits.

But dogs and cats are by far the most common animals to be drugged to combat separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggression, noise phobia, and other issues.

The majority of anti-anxiety medications given to animals are the same ones used for people, although in different doses.

There’s a whole ethical can of worms here, and the sensitivity of the subject is exacerbated by the closeness many pet owners have to their charges. The angle I’d tend to take is that I’m not entirely convinced that the drugs in question are the best solution to the problem in humans, let alone animals – psychiatric pharmacology has what appears to be an alarming obsession with treating the symptoms rather than the root causes, and pharmacology in general seems to promise cures when it can only deliver crude controls.

But even if we take the efficacy of anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs as a given, is it right to give them to animals? Who are we to judge their mental states as being in need of correction? I know for a fact that my mother – an animal owner and breeder since long before I was born – would be appalled at the idea of giving psychiatric drugs to animals to control their mood, as she would consider dysfunctional behaviour to be a direct result of poor training and care. [image by Phil Romans]

Furthermore, as George Dvorsky points out his responses to the article, it begs the question of whether we should own pets at all. I think most of us could agree that keeping a chimp as a pet is not just unethical but foolish, but what of dogs and cats? The more we understand about animal psychology, the trickier these questions become.

7 thoughts on “This is your pet. This is your pet on anti-anxiety drugs. Any questions?”

  1. Interesting questions. One of my dogs is on prozac. I get a lot of shit about it from animal people. The other dog was a rescue dog, had been beaten, a bit handshy. We trained her up, and she’s the most social, happy, well-adjusted Collie dog. She’s great, adore her. Our other dog is a chocolate lab who at puberty suddenly became terrified of anything new. New people, a box, a bag. Dog’s not quite right in the head. After a year of training there’s little progress until I gave up and asked for prozac. Now he’ll remain calm enough I was able to train him to go to a room or hide in his crate when he’s scared, which prevents accidents and panic attacks on his part. Without the prozac we’d either have given him up (and with that personality quirk, he’d be put down), or we’d have had to put him down. Just like some humans really do need meds b/c something is chemically off. If he was our only dog and this crazy, I’d attribute to a failure on my part. But the other dog is perfectly trainable and happy about life and not scared of anything around the house.

  2. We have 2 rescue dogs, one of them a rat terrier who was abused when he was younger. He has accepted us as his family (and was with the other dog even before we got them; they’ve developed a bond as well). But the terrier is a nervous dog of a nervous breed, and had serious anxiety issues: he barked at anyone who passed by the house, and taken on walks, tried to chase runners and bicyclists. If more than one person came to the house, say to do repairs, he’d go into a paroxysm of barking, non-stop for hours sometimes. Chasing runners is particularly dangerous both for him and the runners, so, at our veterinarian’s suggestion we put him on anti-anxiety medication. It’s worked extremely well, his personality is essentially unchanged, and he still barks at people (though only until he’s introduced and he’s asked them to pet him), but he doesn’t chase people. All in all I think this was a good solution for a problem that would have made his life much less pleasant for him, as well as us.

    As for the question of keeping dogs and cats as pets, it’s a few millennia too late to be worrying about that. Humans have bred both species sufficiently far from the original state that they can’t do anywhere near as well in the wild as they once did. Feral cats, for instance, live fairly short lives compared to house cats. And the more exotic breeds can’t live without human support. It’s also true that we’ve bred them to fit into our families as members, and perhaps bred ourselves somewhat in the process.

  3. Wow, I never knew dogs could have this kind of strange personality disorders. One tends to think people read too much into their pet’s behavior, that they project all kinds of human emotions onto them, but your story sheds new light on that. Also, the alternatives you listed do put the objections in a different perspective. Medicate your pet – or have it put down? I know what I would choose!

  4. Assigning human traits to dogs or any other animal just seems weird to me. They’re animals, with very different brains and physiology. I could be wrong.

  5. Tobias,

    My dog (Finn, aka the Hellhound) has had anxiety difficulties leading to aggression due to his mix of breeds. For a while, he was on human anti-depressants, but they seemed to make his problems worse.

    In short, he’s ended up on the anxious end of the spectrum but also has difficulty producing seratonin, the calming chemical. Having finally being diagnosed as having more than just a bad owner, he’s now on a special diet / supplimentary combination. We use a DAP diffuser (at home), spray (for new places) and collar. He takes Zylkene, which is relatively new and usually recommended for firework anxiety. And he’s on Hill’s Science Plan Nature’s Best – the only food I managed to find that definitely has Tryptophan in. Tryptophan is the amino acid / protein precursor to seratonin, btw, which is why it has to be in the food.

    As the food is over 20% protein, I also cut it with other foods to ensure he doesn’t get too much. Too much protein can bring on bad tempers – just ask a body-builder! – but as the body can only absorb so much, you also can’t guarantee _which_ proteins get absorbed. I now feed him over two meals with porridge mixed in for breakfast, as the milk is also relatively high in tryptophan, and with pasta, as carbohydrates are filling, for dinner.

    But finally, if you really want to go the route of looking into dietary affects, ask a professional’s advice. And for those not interested in how hard work a dog with issues can be, tough! 😉

  6. Jo: interesting things to know!

    Screen Sleuth: I don’t attribute human traits to my dogs. They’re dogs. But I do see pet owners who are crazy about thinking of their pets as other people. Our dogs sleep in the floor, get crated, are not allowed in certain areas of the house, and we work on training them a lot. Since some heart problems I’ve had scaredy-dog does get less walks, and he and I both have cabin fever, but until the roads get good enough he can pull me on a bike we’ll both struggle through 🙂

  7. Animals can have serious behavioral problems as a result of anxiety and fear that can not be easily cured by simple operant or classical conditioning alone. Your blog post is a gross oversimplification of how anti-anxiety medication works in animals. It is not merely “treating the symptoms.”

    Anxious pets can work themselves into a blind panic over what we would consider nothing at all – a paper bag blowing by, a strong wind, a UPS truck two streets over, whatever. For obsessive-compulsive pets, that anxiety can then manifest itself in destructive behavior, sometimes directed at the animal itself – some dogs and cats will literally endanger their own lives through obsessive self-mutilation. Not to mention that a constant state of stress will endanger the life of any animal – cat, dog, or human.

    Cats and dogs are not like us – they can’t go to the psychiatrist and talk through their issues or complain to their friends. They are left only with their reactions and a fundamental inability to communicate with the rest of the world because they are so fearful of it. Normal dogs and cats have a basic method of communication with one another, body language communicating simple ideas, such as “I am not a threat”, “this is mine”, “leave me alone”, and so forth. Pets with severe anxiety around other animals are left too damaged to understand this basic communication, which makes them dangerous around other animals, as ignorance of these signals can quickly turn into life-endangering conflict.

    Anti-anxiety drugs can be used to calm the animal down to the point where it is receptive to further behavior modification programs. It is a way of opening the lines of communication, so we can begin teaching the animal how to function in the world. Many pets have taken the first step to rehabilitation with a pill. Why not use every tool we have?

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