Myth: Anxiety Medication Should Only be used as a Last Resort

I’ve written about medicating anxious dogs before, and it’s such an important topic that I want to touch on it again. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this subject.The idea that anxiety medication should only be used after everything else has been tried is so sad and harmful, and is a myth I encounter on a regular basis. Let’s clear up some of the fog surrounding this common misconception.

Photo by Heather

Photo by Heather

Before we get any further, please remember that I am not a veterinarian and I don’t play one on the internet. The information contained in this blog is not meant to diagnose or prescribe, and is only provided for your information. I’m drawing from my experience as a certified veterinary technician, canine behavior consultant, and the owner of an anxious dog to educate you, but your best resource is always going to be a licensed veterinarian.

So, let’s start with what we know. Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology have shown us that anxious or depressed people and animals often display significant physical changes to certain areas of their brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and executing activities) and hippocampus (responsible for memory). We know that fear and anxiety are processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and that emotional pain actually shares some of the same neural pathways with physical pain. That’s why we talk about profound grief or panic “hurting” – it physically impacts our bodies.

This is huge. We know that panic and worry “hurt.” Why the hell would you not treat this pain? If your dog were bleeding every day, wouldn’t you treat the wound? Would you wait to splint a broken bone because you wanted to “try everything else first”? Would you wait to give a dog pain meds after surgery until you saw that he “really needed it”? The truth is that these medications can provide very real relief for dogs who need them, and doing so can be the greatest kindness you can offer to a dog who’s hurting in a very real way.

Q: But aren’t anxiety medications dangerous?

A: Yes, sometimes. Any meds can have dangerous side effects. However, I think we need to be very honest about the risk here. Anxiety medications can have negative effects, but so can pain medication, herbal supplements, heartworm preventative, flea and tick medications, and the diet you choose to feed your dog. Furthermore, if you are considering anxiety medication for your dog, you have to take into consideration the impact of prolonged, excessive levels of stress hormones on your dog’s body. I can guarantee that if your dog’s issues are such that you’re considering anxiety medication for your dog, your dog is already experiencing physical problems from their anxiety. In many cases, elevated stress hormones could be more harmful to your dog long-term than anxiety medication. This is a case where doing nothing is not necessarily any safer than trying medication for your dog.

Q: I’d prefer to stick to natural remedies…

A: Let’s settle this once and for all: natural does not mean safe. I see a lot of dogs who are on multiple herbs, oils, and other “natural” remedies with no concern for their safety ramifications. We have very little knowledge about toxicity, possible drug interactions (either additive or counteractive), side effects, or species-appropriateness for most of these remedies, and frankly, there is very little oversight regarding their safety for us, much less for non-human animals. Most modern medications have roots in herbal or other natural remedies. While the digitalis from a foxglove plant may be very helpful when used therapeutically for a patient with congestive heart failure, it can be deadly to a small child or dog. Arsenic and cyanide are “natural” compounds as well – that doesn’t make them safe. While melatonin, 5-HTP, or valerian root may help some dogs, the truth is that we don’t know that they’re any safer than a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor or Tri-Cyclic Antidepressant, and any compound can cause issues.

Q: But, can’t training solve this problem?

A: Probably. I want to be very clear: medication alone will not solve most behavioral issues. However, repeated studies have shown that combining medication and training results in the fastest progress, and I would argue that this fact in and of itself is a good reason to consider medication for fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs. There’s an underlying humane issue here. Medication can improve your dog’s quality of life while training is taking place and can make that training work more quickly and effectively. Just as using appropriate pain medication can decrease the amount of time it takes animals to heal after surgery, anxiety medication promotes emotional healing. This is a pretty big deal.

Q: Does my dog need to stay on meds forever?

A: Maybe, and maybe not. By far the majority of the dogs I work with are on anxiety medication for a short period of time. The medication helps to cut through the static of anxiety so that the dog is in a better place to learn. Once the dog is no longer fearful, anxious, or aggressive in the formerly triggering context, they are weaned off the medication and go on with their lives, happier and more balanced. That said, some dogs have a true neurochemical imbalance that needs to be treated. Just as a dog with hypothyroidism needs to be given thyroid supplementation, these dogs oftentimes need chemical help to regulate and maintain the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, or other neurochemicals in their brain. For these dogs, anxiety medication may be a lifelong need.

Look, I’m not saying that every anxious dog needs medication. I’m not even saying that it should always be the first thing that we reach for or consider. However, it also shouldn’t be the last. After we’ve looked at environment and put together a training plan, we owe it to our best friends to be very honest about their current quality of life. If your dog is suffering, medication could give him some very real and very quick relief. Personally, I don’t want my dogs to be in pain, and I think we need to be aware that it is okay to consider medication as part of a balanced plan right from the start. It should not be the only thing that changes – medication is not a magic potion that will fix all of your dog’s ills. But it can be one important ingredient in your dog’s customized plan, right alongside management and training.

How do you feel about the use of anxiety medication as part of a behavioral plan to improve a dog’s quality of life? Have you ever used medication for a dog, or are you considering it for your current dog? Please share your questions, stories, and experiences in the comments section below!

105 responses to “Myth: Anxiety Medication Should Only be used as a Last Resort

  1. Pingback: Angstverhalten | Chakanyuka

  2. There are other ways in treating anxiety without the aid of drugs or medications. Talking it out would be an example, because basically comfort from our love ones would be essentially effective.

    • This is not true if you have suffer from a chemical imbalance. All the talking in the world will not help if you do not have the right balance of chemicals in the brain. Plus, dogs obviously can NOT ‘talk it out’. Treating anxiety without medications can be akin to trying to treat diabetes without using insulin.

  3. martina maher

    This is a great article. I had never thought about medication for my anxious rescue dog. But I think at this stage she needs them because her temperament seems to be changing.i no longer have the trust I once had with her. We have had her 2 years but she was in a realy bad state when we got her. Shes afraid of everything and will often shake uncontrollably. There are very few places I can walk her cause shes so anxious. Thanks

  4. Usage of medication along with the therapy’s will helps a lot and reduce the anxiety levels fastily. But some anxiety medications come along with the side-effects so check with your physician or counselor to avoid the side-effects in future. Trying some natural methods were also benefited in reducing the anxiety levels.

  5. Pingback: Brittle Dogs | Paws Abilities

  6. Pingback: Fearful Dogs | Paws Abilities

  7. what medications are there for aggression and what do vets need to look for to see if there’s an imbalance and if medication can help? i mean with me and others I know with mental illness finding the right meds and right mix of meds was a trial and error thing; is that the same for dogs?
    With my dog, he seemed fine with dogs and had dog friends he would play with until he got to about 1.5 years old now he acts out if another dog is looking at him and within 3-5 feet of him. he has no problem with people and he even seems to have no problem with dogs as long as we are walking and moving forward together but just “hanging out” around other dogs specifically if they are his size or bigger he gets upset and attacks.

    Other than observing behaviour what other tests get done to understand what might be going on?

  8. Pingback: Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three | Paws Abilities

  9. There is so much nonsense in this article. How can anti-anxiety medication work on dogs when peer-reviewed Psychiatric research has shown it’s effectiveness equates to that of a placebo effect in humans? Dogs can’t have a placebo response to taking medication because they aren’t aware of the medicalisation of their behaviour. Until there is peer-reviewed research that sits outside of the highly profitable industry that is veterinary psychiatric pharmaceuticals, there is no proof, just anecdotal evidence. Perhaps the placebo is still in effect here for the owner of the pet.

    The above thesis is so loaded, with themes of ‘pain’ and ‘ethics’, but these dangerous and non-scientific measures are happily used to hasten ineffective training methods. What you are essentially doing is doping your dog to be the ideal pet. It’s no different to giving your dog copious amounts of beer and hoping for the best.

    This is no different to medicating your children for displaying child-like antics.

    • Sarah–You are, sadly, grossly misinformed on every point that you have made in your April 2, 2015 at 8:58 am reply to this scientifically correct and humane post.

  10. I am at my wits end with my 3 year old rescue dog. She is a small cross miniature pinscher, I have taken her to dog school, I walk her twice a day, I give her lots of love yet there has been no change in her fearful and anxious behaviour. She was found dumped in a forest like picnic area around 2 months old. Surely she has ‘forgotten’ this with the good care and love she has received for the last 3 years. She barks in our home at every sound she hears (mostly I hear nothing). When I walk her she barks for the first 5 minutes at least, in such a high pitch it is disturbing to everyone around. She snaps and runs to attack other dogs yet is friendly to all of my friends dogs. I know this is all fear based but after 3 years now it is not going to change. I have tried everything I can think of but to no avail. I am seriously considering medication. I have of course tried natural calming tablets but they make no difference. I have asked a few vets but they do not approve of this method here in Spain. What am I to do!!!
    I love my dog but I can’t stand her behaviour any more! My husband is so fed up with the constant yapping and embarrassed at her behaviour on walks that he wants me to give her away. I can’t do this, besides nobody wants her with her issues anyway! Any advise?

  11. Pingback: Pickles’ Story | Paws Abilities

  12. Thank you for this article. As a person who tried everything for treatment of my own anxiety issues (thousands of dollars of therapy, acupuncture, yoga retreats, special diets, etc etc etc) I finally made the decision to try pharmaceuticals. And guess what? They have helped me immensely. Why wouldn’t I make the same decision for my dog if the situation warranted it?

  13. I want to serious caution the nay-sayers here.
    Yes – behavior modification is necessary for dogs and people and there’s no such thing as a quick fix, however there are times that even when you know what you’re doing and you do everything right you need help. Somethings cannot be explained to a dog. And just as with people, some dogs just feel emotions more deeply.
    I have 4 happy and healthy dogs, but 3 years ago my husband was diagnosed with terminal, metastatic cancer. There have been many trips to hospitals and my husband has had several surgeries. Our male who is closest to my husband started to have an exceptionally difficult time. Was he destructive? No. Did he develop a lick granuloma? No. Did he continue to play with with our other dogs? Yes, to a point.
    So then, you may wonder what’s the anxiety issue here? Well, you see, in spite of having a “nanny” who our dogs just love and who lives at the house when we’d go on vacation (and then for extended hospital stays), he knew something was wrong.
    At first he stopped eating for just a day or two and then he stopped eating for several days and he’d be up pacing at night. When the girls lined up at the food bowls for meals he did not and no amount of coaxing would encourage him. And yes – he was losing weight. We went through the standard battery of tests (thyroid, CBC, etc.) and he had no diagnosable physical issues. So if it looks like a rose and smells like a rose….
    I am very fortunate that my veterinarian is not against anxiety medication. He recommended an Rx for mirtazapine and that restored our boys zest for life and his peace of mind…at least to the point that he’s able to sleep and eat!
    So talk all you want about a placebo effect but that’s not what I’ve witnessed. I’ve seen first hand the positive affect of anxiety meds and
    I would serious caution anyone who thinks that all anxiety is curable strictly with behavioral modification.

    • Dianne, Thank you so much for your comment. My boy was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes in Oct 2015, my husband died in Dec, and last week the diabetes caused him to go blind. Since last week he has been coughing up huge hairballs. I can only assume the blindness was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I have heard they will lick themselves when anxious. Your comment was just what I needed to help me decide what to do. He will be on meds in the morning! Thanks again!

  14. Thank your for this wonderful article! I have an unusual situation that you might comment on. We took our 6 yr old aussie and 1 yr dachshund on vacation last year for a month in Montana. Unfortunately when we got there we discovered that when we left the dogs, they howled (mostly the aussie) for hours! The man who rented us the cabin lived nearby and complained and eventually forbid us from leaving the dogs. We tried exercising them first, leaving them for short periods of time, melatonin, music, tv, pretty much everything. Nothing worked. We were with them most of the time, but occasionally wanted to eat out, or go for a hike that did not permit dogs. We resorted to day boarding them a few of times for a lot of money. We’re going to Montana again this year and we don’t know what to do to address this problem. The aussie is not a problem at home and we can leave the house with no issues. I’m thinking medication is the only option, but it needs to be strong enough to keep him calm or people in the vicinity will complain about the howling. Can you suggest any one type of medication over another? Thank you!

    • I have had 3 Aussies. My 2nd developed anxiety and panic issues in his 11th year, after returning from living overseas and relocating to Montana where he became frightened of thunderstorms, gunshots (from local hunters), and the hot summers. I tried many homeopathic and natural remedies, but finally, with my veterinarian’s recommendation, tried him on Prozac, and was very happy with the results. He was only on it for about 4 months, through the summer when most of the triggers occurred, then I tapered him off. I switched to a natural product called Zylkene 450 mgs (again, suggested by my veterinarian) that is made from a protein from cow’s milk, and it managed his symptoms as he made his way to his end of life at age 12 of liver cancer. I now have my 3rd Aussie, a 6 year old rescue, who is on her 3rd (and final) home. She has some seperation anxiety and will lick her paws constantly when anxious. I use the Zylkene with her also, as I like using the natural products. One last comment…both Aussies have had amazing results with the Thundershirt. I know many people who think they are useless, but I put the Thundershirt on my Aussies BEFORE the trigger starts, as well as their medication if needed, and then ignore them (in order not to excite them or feed into their anxiety) and they are fast asleep – it is literally amazing for my dogs.i hope this information helps.

  15. Marianne B, thank you…that is very helpful. My male aussie does have some thunderstorm phobia, but we ignore him and he manages it ok on his own by sitting close by. I will definitely try the thundershirt. Without getting too long winded, when we came back from our trip last summer, Dakotah did also howl when I would take my grandson for a walk and leave him behind. That is such a rare occurrence, I haven’t bothered to correct it. BUT, it would be a good training opportunity to see if the thundershirt and Zylkene works. I really want to try to have a foolproof method in place BEFORE we go next summer. Last summer was kind of a bummer being quite limited in our activities.

  16. I have a rescue dog. Boy, I didn’t know what I got myself into. She has severe separation anxiety. I can’t even go to the mailbox without her crying, barking and scratching at the door. I can be on my patio not more than 1ft away from her and she’s crying. She cries over everything. I have been to a behaviorist and she’s been on more than a few drugs. Some didn’t work and some suppressed her appetite where she wasn’t eating. I am trying to help her but at the same time I have no life. I can’t go out even to run to the store if this dog isn’t on meds. How would the people who poo poo the idea of no meds like to have no life. Right now she’s on nothing because she wasn’t eating. I have spent my 2 week vacation inside the house. She also gets car sickness so she has to be medicated for that. It doesn’t matter if someone else is home all she wants is me. So she cries and is out of control. I am trying my best but sometimes all I want to do is cry. She’s the cutest little thing with lots of issues. I am an animal lover and I know that not many people would put up with this behavior. So still I try….

    • Dear Jeanean,
      I feel for you as I have the same problem and despair! I live in Spain and have a rescue dog, she is 3.5 years and I have spent so much on different natural sprays and tablets which make no difference. The vets here do not believe in medicating pets. I eventually begged a vet to prescribe something to calm her. She gave me ‘Calmivet’ and said I must give her a quarter tablet am and pm. I only gave it to her once, she could not even walk! She was falling over and walking into walls. Yet again I’m back to square one, getting more dispondent. I love my dog but regret the day I took her in. If you find a solution please share it with me. I will do the same. Good luck!

  17. I very much want to try anxiety mess on my 1 ½ year old Cavalier. With just us, she’s secure, But when we have guests, she barks excessively, even when she knows them. Outside, she’s always looking everywhere, and if there’s anything different going on- even a car parked on the street, she’s very tail tucked anxious. She’s extremely territorial, even doesn’t want the cat to come into the room where her crate and our bed is. She’s anxious around other dogs..if a dog approached us, she will growl at it.
    I just hate that she can’t enjoy her life.

  18. The problem here may arise from your reference to a “licensed veterinarian”. Some time ago, Dr. Karen Overall gave an interview on veterinary schools and behavior education. Some time after, a number of behavioral vets in their resident training gave a similar message. Many vets I’ve spoken to will often prescribe only one or two common medications, do not know how to perform a behavioral assessment, and are just guessing. Other than a hand-out sheet, they give no behavioral advice. While you stated, and I agree, that medication alone will not solve most behavioral issues, those vets seem to rely almost fully on the medications. While a few will cooperate with behaviorists, most will not. I’ve seen dogs put on long-term SSRI’s, with dosage increases, but no blood work or behavioral conditioning. Other than a remote consult with somebody like Overall or Dodman, it’s often difficult, and there’s no easy way for the average dog owner to know if they’re heading the right way.

  19. I have just got some anti anxiety meds for my Airedale Daisy we lost her gorgeous brother Charlie over 2 weeks ago and I have tried all different method kongs food treats changing routines and she still cries when we leave her home alone it’s breaking my heart and hers as well as dealing with the loss of our beautiful boy they are nearly 11 years old and I am desperate to help my little girl now.

  20. My 2nd Aussie had terrible depression & seperation anxiety when my 17 year old Border Collie, the only dog he truly knew, died. He would not eat, cried, and would not be left alone. After working with a animal behaviorist & the vet and trying behavior modification & anti-anxiety meds, he went on a short course (4 months) of Prozac and it really helped. I still worked with him on behavior modification )short periods outside with treat rewards for no crying, etc) as medication is not the magic answer. Once he became confident, we weaned him off the medication. I felt this was the better option than anti-anxiety meds, as he might have needed to be on the medication for a long period of time. This should be decided between you and your vet. I have found done vets are not that open to anti-depressants, but thankfully it was my vet’s suggestion. Good luck to you and your pup & I am sorry for your loss.

  21. I adopted a retriever/saint bernard mix dog, he is only approx. 1yr and 7 months old. The shelter i got him from has had him for a year and the first 7 months he was not taken care of well at all. My feeling is he needs to have a forever home which he has now. They said he has separation anxiety which i am not sure since he has been in a kennel for the last year, i am no expert but sounds like he is trying to be an active puppy. Anyway my question is he has been on trazodone 50mg twice a day, would like to see how he does without it but not sure if can just take him off all at once or if it should be weaned off.

    • Rosemary…. You should wean him off of it. That medication is not suppose to be stopped abruptly. Good luck and bless you for rescuing him from the shelter.. So sad he was there so long.

  22. Rosemary…. You should wean him off of it. That medication is not suppose to be stopped abruptly. Good luck and bless you for rescuing him from the shelter.. So sad he was there so long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s