As a dog owner, I know I want to do anything I can to provide as comforting a life for my pup as she gives me in her companionship, loyalty, and devotion. If ever a circumstance or condition arose where I would find the need to seek treatment options to ensure the proper comfort, I would seek it. A recent experience a friend shared with me about her beloved dog brought this front and center for me and led me down the path of exploring the different circumstances that can present the need to use anxiety meds for dogs.
When things went from bad to worse for my friend
My friend was recently upset by her dog’s aggressive behavior was exhibiting not just to strangers but also to family members. The dog’s aggression upon arriving at the vet was intense, and they were directed to take the dog home to avoid any staff members being injured.
This indicated the dog was under some unusual stress, and they needed to check for the underlying cause. In this case, the dog received an anesthetizing drug to perform a proper examination.
It made me wonder: What do you do when your dog is in need, and you can’t even figure out what’s wrong? What can you do when you have an anxious dog that nothing seems to help, not even your own presence that you hope your dog relies on?
Dogs are intelligent, social creatures.
My dog is smart, as most dogs are. I guess I take for granted how social she is since we do so well together. As I started to learn about the things that can cause dog stress, I quickly gained a sense of appreciation for how well my dog gets along. Then again, she is the only dog, and there is no competition to be the favorite.
There are three main causes of anxiety in dogs:
1. Separation anxiety is a big deal for some dogs
I don’t know if most of us realize how much our dogs depend on us. For example, separation anxiety is a stressful condition and has been found to affect 20-40% of dogs. As you probably know, every time you leave your dog home alone, they are there awaiting your return.
Some take it better than others, while some take it out on the home’s interior. For example, the common destruction occurs around the doors or windows as the dog desperately wants to get outside to find out what has happened to you. Where did you go? Why have you not returned?
It goes with the territory for dogs as pack animals that they want and needs you – as the alpha – to be there, so they know what is expected of them. Part of this can be alleviated early when you first bring the dog home and introduce your new dog to a new family. Doing this right can greatly affect how they deal with anxious moments down the road.
You will see this no better demonstrated than when you give your dog a job. They live to serve their masters. When you are not there, your dog can undergo stress. You may even witness the onset of shaking or pacing at the mere sight of you getting dressed to go to work or just the sound of your keys.
In some cases, you can get a calming dog bed that is all their own. It gives them a place of sanctuary they know they can go to for solace in your absence. Still, the anxious dog tears that bed to shreds in their stress over your absence. While separation anxiety is not always easy to avoid and may be harder to cope with, it is one condition for which behavior medication has proved helpful.
2. Fear-related anxiety comes from everywhere
While it may seem normal for tiny dogs to fear the big wide world, there are plenty of stimuli out there that can send the big dogs huddling for safety somewhere. Most recognized is loud reports from fireworks or thunderstorms, but the loud rumbling from choppers with those heavy mufflers are enough to cause dogs to become nervous. I understand this is an effect purposely done to motorcycles to make their presence known to other drivers since they are commonly overlooked while on the road.
My dog loves to go for a ride in the car, but I have seen the wide-eyed terror on dogs that are terrified of the idea. Places where many people or other dogs gather, including the dreaded visit to the vet’s office, can be a terrifying experience for an anxious dog. For others, it is the umbrella. A walking cane can be questionable since it can double for a weapon, I suppose.
Out on a walk, the shoop of a skateboard or an innocent baby carriage is enough to strike fear in the heart of an anxious pooch. If only there were calming pills for dogs. The good news is there are, and even better news, they can be used along with behavior modification to quell the fear and reach the stage of no longer needing the anxiety meds for dogs.
3. Age-related anxiety
Just as you can see the effects of aging in your dog, your dog senses their own limits as they age. The hearing is not what it used to be, and the vision has dimmed a bit. Then, there is this pervasive cognitive dysfunction that tends to develop. Couple this with the pain from weak joints, it is no wonder there may be difficulty just trying to navigate familiar surroundings.
Senior dogs do well to have an orthopedic bed to alleviate joint pain and help them sleep better. The benefit of a set of steps or a ramp makes it easier for your dog to get on the bed with you. There may be an increased issue with separation anxiety in older dogs and the destruction that can come from boredom or anxiety. There may also be accidents inside the home when a senior dog cannot easily get outside.
There is far less chance of coupling behavior modification with meds to alleviate the stress that causes undesirable responses at old age. It can be far more humane to examine the options of calming pills for dogs to ease the stress of aging’s debilitating effects. It is helpful to understand the different types of behavior medications and how best to use them.
Detecting the signs of an anxious dog
It is useful to learn to read the body language of your dog. There are postures or behaviors you can look at as possible indicators of stress or anxiety, such as:
- Agitation or restlessness
- Destructive behavior
- Excessive barking
- Escape attempts
- New aggression or a worsening case
- Compulsive behaviors
- Urinating in the house
I am profoundly aware of when something is different in my dog’s behavior. I am also aware that at any point, my dog poses a risk to herself or me. My first action is to get her to the vet to find out what is wrong immediately.
Prepare when giving your dog anxiety medications.
Anxiety meds for dogs are similar to the anxiety drugs for humans, with all the same precautions and warnings for their use.
While calming pills for dogs seems a simple answer to many problems, the answer can be a little more complicated than that.
Talk with your vet before using any medications. It is important to eliminate the possibility of any underlying health issues that share similar symptoms to stress and anxiety.
Training or medication?
The optimal approach will combine behavior training with a drug regimen and a plan to have your pup no longer needing the drugs eventually.
As drugs do have side effects, it may be an initial process of delivering the medicine in moderation until you can better understand its efficacy. This differs from those medicines that are faster acting and do not last as long in the system, such as tranquilizing drugs used during a thunderstorm.
It is important to differentiate between a dog that really struggles with noise phobias, aggression, or separation anxiety and dogs with training issues like inappropriately jumping on people, ignoring your commands, or just not getting along with other dogs.
Training issues are not a condition requiring medications. Training calls for patience, diligence, consistency, and following a good plan that teaches your dog what you want them to do.
That said, it is difficult, if not impossible, for dogs with serious behavior problems to learn anything until the underlying anxiety is addressed.
The physical changes occurring under stress are severe enough to preclude any learning.
The terrified dog’s brain chemistry changes compared to the dog who easily takes things in stride.
While training addresses anxiety, it is difficult to establish a workable starting point for the dog that cannot be kept “under the threshold” of anxiety.
Whether short-term or long-term use, anxiety medications are well-tolerated for most dogs.
Just as it goes with humans, long-term use should have yearly blood work performed to ensure things are normal.
Be aware, though, certain chronic health conditions such as liver disease or epilepsy can influence your choice of medications. Again, work with your vet.
Categories of anxiety meds for dogs
There are two main types of behavior medications:
1. SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors typically delivered daily
2. Short-acting situational medications are given “as needed” for specific problems.
Long-term treatment plan
SSRIs go by such familiar names as Prozac, a fluoxetine, Zoloft, a sertraline, and Paxil, a paroxetine. There are also TCAs, also known as tricyclic antidepressants like Clomicalm, or clomipramine and amitriptyline. MAOI, or monoamine oxidase inhibitor, such as Anipryl, a selegiline, is an approved drug for canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
These drugs require some time to be in the dog’s system at a steady rate to have an effect. You can think of these as “background meds” that subtly work 24-hours a day. These are not quick-fix medications to calm your dog down, but for some, they are beneficial when conducting a long-term treatment plan.
These antidepressants are susceptible to producing adverse reactions to watch out for. Side effects are typically dose-dependent, so beginning treatment with a lower dose may prove effective at easing the following:
- Increased anxiety
- Decreased appetite
- Undesirable sedation
- Lowered seizure threshold
Short-term treatment plan
Situational meds are used to ease specific problems. The most known drugs in this category include Xanax, Valium, and Trazodone. Tranquilizers such as acepromazine may be used occasionally. These drugs work for noise phobias or separation anxiety, and they are given as needed.
The effects of these drugs are more pronounced and quicker than SSRIs. The side effects are also more pronounced, such as drowsiness. In this case, these are considered the trade-offs for their effectiveness.
Drugs, dosage, and potential adverse effects
Here is a list of behavioral medications along with their typical doses and their side effects:
Azapirone and Buspirone – a dose of 1-2 mg/kg PO Q 8-24 H; may cause aggression disinhibition and increased anxiety.
- Benzodiazepine and Alprazolam – a dose of 0.02–0.1 mg/kg PO Q 8 H or PRN; may cause agitation, sedation, ataxia, which is muscle control, or polyphagia, which is excessive hunger or eating
- Clorazepate or Diazepam – a dose of 0.5–2.2 mg/kg PO Q 8 H or PRN; may cause agitation, sedation, ataxia, which is muscle control, or polyphagia, which is excessive hunger or eating
- Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor
Selegiline – a dose of 0.5–1 mg/kg PO Q 24 H; may cause agitation, disorientation, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Serotonin Antagonist-Reuptake Inhibitor
Trazadone – a dose of 3–5 mg/kg PO Q 8–24 H or PRN; may cause increased anxiety or sedation.
- Selective Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitor Fluoxetine – a dose of 0.5–2 mg/kg PO Q 24 H; may cause agitation, loss of appetite, lowered seizure threshold, sedation, or tremors.
- Paroxetine – a dose of 1 mg/kg PO Q 24 H; may cause agitation, loss of appetite, lowered seizure threshold, sedation, or tremors.
Sertraline – dose of 1–3 mg/kg PO Q 24 H; may cause agitation, loss of appetite, lowered seizure threshold, sedation, or tremors.
- Tricyclic Antidepressant Amitriptyline- a dose of 1–4 mg/kg PO Q 12 H; may cause constipation, decreased appetite, dry mouth and eyes, increased anxiety, lowered seizure threshold, sedation, tachycardia and/or tachyarrhythmia or urine retention.
- Clomipramine – dose of 1–3 mg/kg PO Q 12 H; may cause constipation, decreased appetite, dry mouth and eyes, increased anxiety, lowered seizure threshold, sedation, tachycardia and/or tachyarrhythmia or urine retention. Importantly, this was approved in 2019 by the FDA to treat separation anxiety in dogs.
It is not uncommon to give your dog a combination of any two of these drugs together. In antidepressants, their combined use may trigger serotonin toxicity, which is known as serotonin syndrome. You must watch for the early signs of agitation, tremors, or seizures, although these can be ambiguous.
The typical doses make such reactions rare. However, monotherapy might give you a better opportunity to try the drugs initially so that these side effects are easier to identify. This caution is significant in that serotonin syndrome can have a potentially fatal reaction.
Discontinuing drug therapy
Taper medications gradually rather than discontinuing use abruptly. It may require weeks or months to taper down, depending on the duration of your treatment plan. It’s also best to taper to avoid a rebound in anxiety or exacerbating behavior issues. Some of these medications change brain chemistry, so you must give your dog the chance to adjust in a normal manner.
Other over-the-counter agents ease anxiety or other behavior changes in dogs that may be added to a treatment plan. Vitamins and supplements are natural compounds that are safe and effective, such as:
- Vitamins and natural compounds – Senilife, Zylkene
- l-theanine – Anxitane or Composure, which also comes in a flavored chew that dogs readily enjoy as a treat
- S-adenosyl-methionine (SAMe) – NOVIFIT is a supplement that works by increasing serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine levels in the brain
- Chinese herbal therapy – may also reduce canine anxiety
- CBD oil – Cannabinoids minus the THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, have proven to be very effective in alleviating stress in dogs. While there is yet to be scientific support for the natural compounds that match both our own and our dog’s Endocannabinoid systems, the natural receptors in the body, your vet can advise you on what compounds you may try if this is of interest to you. The AKC has a good article on this as well.
Other options include:
- Prescription diets – Veterinary Diet Calm or Hills allows you to provide anxiety relief in your dog’s daily diet.
- Dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) – Adaptil is used either as a wearable collar or a plug-in diffuser to release the synthetic version of the maternal pheromone produced when a mama pup is nursing her puppies. It helps some dogs in promoting relaxation and relieving stress. Results vary, but there is scientific evidence behind their use.
- Anxiety Wraps
While behavioral drugs for pets have become commonplace, “puppy Prozac” is not a path to take without caution. Your vet will determine the best medicine per the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act. This is the best way to review the indications and mechanisms of action of the different available drugs.
Your vet will also be better able to familiarize you with the contraindications and adverse effects. A vet exam will indicate confounding or comorbidity issues related to the behavior problem that considers pain, hypersensitivity, or sensory decline.
Anxiety meds for dogs, behavior modification, and training are effective methods for managing behavior problems in your dog. At the same time, it is helpful for dog owners to avoid triggers of aggression. Punishment or harsh training methods should be avoided if your goal is to teach your dog to overcome behavior problems. With patience, guidance from your vet, and the appropriate methods to help your nervous dog overcome these issues, you can achieve a happy, peaceful life together.