Medical therapy plus behavior modification may help dogs and cats with anxieties, phobias and compulsive behaviors
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Primrose, a 3-year-old Pyrenean shepherd, has always had a lot of nervous energy — to the point that her behavior could be annoying, says owner Deb Rabuck of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
After Rabuck had Prim spayed last August, the dog’s behavior changed, and not for the better. Already aggressive toward unknown dogs and people, she began urine-marking in the house and developed signs of anxiety such as panting and pacing. Prim’s behavior kept Rabuck from sleeping at night and disturbed her other dogs.
“I had to separate her from my other two dogs,” she says. “I was afraid they would kill her. She drives them crazy with all that energy.”
Rabuck took Prim to veterinary behaviorist Jacqueline Wilhelmy, VMD. After running lab tests to rule out possible health problems, Dr. Wilhelmy prescribed Prozac and gabapentin and offered behavior modification advice. It has been 11 days, and while Prim is still urine-marking, Rabuck is now able to sleep through the night.
Pet behavior problems such as separation anxiety; thunderstorm or other noise-related fears; compulsive disorders such as excessive chewing, licking, tail chasing or other repetitive behaviors; or aggression toward other animals or humans can all respond to many of the same psychoactive medications that help humans. They include fluoxetine (Prozac), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor; gabapentin, an antiseizure medication sometimes used off-label for pain and anxiety; tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline; and benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium.
“Not in every case do we use a medication, but when it is indicated, it can really facilitate the progress of the case quite dramatically,” says Patrick Melese, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in San Diego, Calfornia.
Medications used in humans have the same or similar effects in dogs and cats because the nervous systems of animals and humans operate in a similar manner. The goal is to normalize brain chemistry and improve the way the animal processes information.
Shannon Gillespie’s border collie Fizz has taken Prozac for more than five years because she would “explode” when frustrated or excited and was unable to calm down quickly. About four years ago, when Fizz’s veterinarian prescribed gabapentin for torn bicep and supraspinatus muscles, Gillespie noticed a further positive change in her behavior. Now Fizz takes both medications to help her maintain a calm demeanor.
“Medications can help decrease the animal’s overall level of anxiety, aggressive behavior, and reactivity and help with impulse control, says Wailani Sung, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist at San Francisco SPCA Behavior Specialty Service and co-author of the book “From Fearful to Fear Free.” “They are typically prescribed when the animal has a high level of anxiety, aggressive behavior and reactivity, (and) when the inappropriate behavior occurs daily or multiple times a week or is very intense.”
It can take several weeks on medication before pets become calm or relaxed enough to start learning new ways of coping or adjust to changes in the household or interactions with family members or other animals. How long medical therapy continues depends on the individual animal and situation. It can range from a few months to a year to a lifetime. Animals may stay on the same dose or have it gradually reduced as the situation improves.
Medication by itself won’t solve a pet’s behavior problems. Behavior modification and environmental changes, if needed, are a necessary part of treatment. (The exception, Dr. Melese says, is urine-marking in cats, which typically responds well to medication alone.) A veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist can develop a plan to help the animal respond more appropriately to the circumstances that trigger the behavior.