by Dr. Emily Levine, DVM, DACVB
Dr. Emily Levine, DVM, DACVB is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, co-owner of Instinct Englewood and owner of the Animal Behavior Clinic of NJ. ***Remember, veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists are the only individuals qualified to discuss and recommend behavior medications for your pet.***
1. THEY EXIST
Yes, there are behavior medications for dogs. In veterinary medicine, many of the same behavior medications used in people arealso used in pets. Different classes of medication can be used for various behavioral conditions, from fear, anxiety, and phobias, to compulsive disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and arousal and frustration issues.
2. THEY’RE BACKED BY SCIENCE
There is a robust body of scientific literature spanning decades that supports the efficacy of behavior medications in a wide variety of species, including dogs. Medications work by altering neurotransmission (how the brain transfers information), which affects the products made by your dog’s brain cells. These different products, in turn, influence many different aspects of neurobiology. Changes that result from medication can include:
- Growth of new neurons and formation of new neural pathways
- Increased or decreased amounts of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine
- More efficient information processing
- Ability to learn more easily
3. THEY MUST BE RECOMMENDED, PRESCRIBED, AND MONITORED BY A VETERINARIAN
Behavior medications can only be prescribed by veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists. Ideally, it is best to work with a board certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) or an experienced veterinarian with a special interest in behavioral disorders; these specialized professionals can help assess the pros and cons of various medications for each individual patient, and can also help with the important process of ruling out medical conditions prior to diagnosing a behavioral disorder. There are many endocrine disorders, neurologic disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, dermatological disorders, and musculoskeletal disorders that can contribute to or cause behavior issues.
4. THEY’RE NOT FOR EVERY DOG
Many dogs with fear, anxiety, or arousal issues can make wonderful progress through appropriate training efforts, and do not require medication as part of a behavior modification plan. Medications should be considered as part of a behavior program only when a qualified medical professional – a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist – determines that the behavioral condition of your pet is not falling within normal parameters and/or is not responding to appropriate behavior modification efforts.
When might a veterinarian recommend behavior medication(s)?
- When a dog is regularly experiencing levels of fear, anxiety, or arousal such that it is significantly impacting the dog’s quality of life or impairing the dog’s ability to learn.
- The dog experiences instances of severe panic and fear
- The dog experiences generalized anxiety, in which they are moderately anxious or worried in a wide variety of situations
- When a dog’s physiological responses to specific events or stimuli are so intense as to make learning without the help of medication difficult or impossible.
- The dog quickly becomes over-aroused, agitated, or frustrated
- The dog is slow to recover after becoming aroused
5. THEY CAN IMPROVE YOUR DOG’S QUALITY OF LIFE
For dogs who experience severe episodes of anxiety, fear, and panic, medication can provide relief from mental anguish and suffering. If a dog regularly reacts to certain fear- or anxiety-inducing situations or stimuli by trembling, drooling, urinating or defecating, attempting to flee, or inflicting harm to themselves or others, this dog is experiencing a welfare crisis; it is our responsibility as pet owners to act immediately to provide relief as quickly as possible. Appropriate behavior medications can be a needed and necessary first step in helping to ease the mental pain experienced by these dogs.
6. THEY CAN MAKE LEARNING POSSIBLE
Medications can help properly regulate a dog’s internal, physiological state so that learning can take place. Some dogs – often those who become easily over-aroused, agitated, or frustrated – regularly experience an internal state that prevents them from being able to learn new behaviors and responses. In these situations, their body, just like a diabetic with insulin, may need medications to help regulate their internal environment. Think of this as “Setting the Stage” for learning to occur and for training & behavior modification efforts to be successfully absorbed.
7. THEY CAN HELP YOUR DOG DO MORE, and LESS
If your dog’s prescribed medication is working as it should, you should expect to see the following types of behavioral changes:
- Your dog is comfortable MORE often
- Your dog is happier MORE often
- Your dog is confident and able to cope with their environment MORE often
- Your dog is MORE easily able to learn new behaviors & habits
- You and your dog can do MORE together
- Your dog’s reactions or behaviors are LESS intense, LESS frequent, or shorter in duration than before
- Your dog takes LESS time to recover following an episode, reaction, or stressful event
Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy? Remember, the ONLY reason your veterinarian will prescribe medication for a dog’s behavior is to improve and enhance their quality of life. If you start your dog on medication and they appear drowsy, drugged, out of it, etc., your dog’s veterinarian needs to be notified to make appropriate adjustments.
8. THEY’RE NOT A QUICK FIX
If your dog is prescribed medication, it is important to understand that it is a process, just like it is for people going through therapy. We are fortunate today to have many different medication options, and it may take time to find the right one(s) for your pet. The best way to determine efficacy is to monitor behavioral progress as you are going through the appropriate science-based behavior modification and training. And while there are some conditions for which medications in and of themselves can make a big difference quickly, there are other conditions for which the results are more nuanced and subtle, especially at first. Further, certain classes of medications can take 4 weeks to fully take effect, while others may work much faster. For these reasons, it is imperative that an experienced veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) is actively monitoring and adjusting medications.
9. THEY’RE NOT A FOREVER THING…Usually
The goal is always to wean your dog off the medication(s), with the hope that once your dog is less anxious, aroused, aggressive, etc., they can now learn and retain new, healthy behaviors through training & behavior modification techniques. Over time, this new learning builds new neuronal connections in the brain, such that medication is no longer needed. There are some dogs, however, for whom medication is a lifelong requirement. Put simply, these dogs are similar to a person with diabetes who requires insulin – their body just doesn’t make something it requires to function properly. How fortunate for these dogs that there is help available through veterinary medicine.
This blog post was written by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Emily Levine, DVM, DACVB.
Click to download a pdf version here: Behavior Medication Handout.