One of Nicholas Dodman’s earliest patients was a small terrier who was so afraid of other dogs that he would attack them. At the park, his owner had to keep him on a leash and walk along the fence, far from where other dogs played. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University veterinary school, had discovered that clonidine, a drug used to treat hypertension in people, could also help fearful dogs by reducing the flow of noradrenaline (the brain’s version of adrenaline) "to a dribble from a gush."
Once the terrier started taking the medicine, his terror vanished. Soon he was happily playing off-leash with the rest of the park pack.
That’s how one dog joined the growing ranks of pets whose emotional pain has been soothed by modern medicine.
The fact that pets can benefit from the same drugs used to treat people doesn't surprise Dodman. During his 46 years as a practicing veterinarian and researcher, Dodman has never lost sight of the fact that his patients have complex emotional lives. In his recently published book Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry, he describes the basis of his "one medicine" approach as a recognition of "the striking similiarities between animals and human beings, both in their behavior and in their emotional and psychological problems."
If this conjures disconcerting images of a pup popping Prozac or a cat zoning out on Valium, try looking at it from this angle: When a pet suffers from severe behavioral problems, it can be a real struggle for both the animal and owner. The right drug, when used as part of a behavioral therapy program, can keep an animal in her home and help her shed some debilitating psychological baggage. If you’re dealing with worrisome behaviors in your pet, read on.
Does my pet need drugs? When it comes to run-of-the-mill nuisance behaviors—such as jumping on people or scratching furniture—drugs aren’t the answer. These issues can typically be resolved with increased exercise and interaction, positive reinforcement training and environmental modifications, such as adding scratching posts to the house. But it’s a different story for a cat who obsessively grooms her tail until her fur falls out.
Behavioral therapy is a holistic approach used to treat the more complex psychological/behavior issues that animals can suffer from, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, aggression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with techniques like desensitization training, a behaviorist will look at everything affecting your pet’s mental state, including your training methods, the amount of exercise he gets, his home environment and even the type of food he eats.
Should my pet be getting human drugs? Psychotropic drugs aren’t "human drugs" any more than antibiotics are. Most serious behavior issues stem from fear or anxiety, says Dodman, and veterinarians are finding that drugs that have long helped people cope with these stresses can provide similar benefits for animals. (Dodman's research has also identified genes shared by humans, horses and dogs who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette's syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.)
The medicines prescribed for dogs and cats basically fall into two categories: treatments for long-term fear, anxiety and related emotional issues and short-term treatments for stressful situations. While some animals may need to be on a drug for life, for many it's a temporary tool that assists with desensitization training, says Dodman. "The goal is for the dog to experience the formerly threatening experience over and over, and the dog loses the fear association and no longer needs the drug."
Why is my pet frightened or anxious? Like people, animals are affected by frightening experiences. Researchers have documented signs of PTSD among military combat and bomb-detection dogs, pets who have lived through earthquakes and other natural disasters, and animals who have been abused. Individual animals, like people, have different levels of emotional resilience and different life experiences, which is why one dog may be traumatized by an event that another dog takes in stride.
Animals suffering from PTSD can feel the constant strain of generalized anxiety— the fear that something dangerous might happen at any moment, and they might be hypersensitive to things like loud noises, unfamiliar settings or strange people. When they act out in response to the fear, the reactions from people or other pets around them can reinforce or even heighten the fear.
What should I do if I’m concerned about my pet’s behavior? Your first step should be to consult your vet, says veterinarian Melissa Bain, chief of service of the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at the University of California–Davis. There’s a good chance that a cat who pees outside her litter box has a painful urinary tract infection or that a dog who suddenly growls when you pick him up is suffering from a back injury.
Once it’s clear that your pet’s worrying behavior doesn’t have an underlying physical cause, ask your veterinarian to recommend a veterinary behaviorist (a licensed veterinarian who has completed a residency in animal behavior) or a certified pet behaviorist (typically someone with a doctoral or master’s degree in animal behavior science). Some veterinary schools include psychological and behavior issues in their programs, so your vet may be able to work with you and your pet.
Can a drug solve my pet’s problem? Drugs are a great tool. But veterinary behaviorists stress that a drug alone is rarely the answer for a pet with serious behavioral issues.
A behaviorist will typically meet with the owner and pet, diagnose the problem and develop a complete program. Drugs may not even be a part of the cure, but if they are prescribed, it’s always as part of a comprehensive plan for behavioral modification and helping pets overcome their fears or anxiety.