YOUR DOG’S LITTLE HELPER.
All the things you need to know about behavioral medications
Lisa Radosta DVM, DACVB
As a veterinary behaviorist, a part of my job each day is talking to pet parents about medications and supplements which may help their pets to be less fearful, anxious, stressed or frustrated. Sometimes people come to my office asking for medication to help their pets. Other times, they come with a decision already made that they will not medicate their pet or to use a natural product. Most people fall somewhere in the middle wanting to know more about the options and if a supplement or medication might be right for their dog.
Most people are pretty familiar with the term medication but the term supplement can be pretty vague. Supplements are natural products. Natural is a term that usually makes us feel that the product is safe. However, supplements can have just as many side effects as medications. Additionally, they are not regulated which means that there can be broad variations in the quality or even the quantity of the active ingredient. When using supplements, always make sure to talk to your veterinarian and choose supplements that have published research in dogs.
There is no magic formula to determine if your pet needs a medication or supplement to help them make the journey to improved behavioral wellness. Each dog’s needs are unique. Luckily, there are questions that you can ask yourself and discuss with your dog’s veterinarian which can help you decide the best course for your dog. Before starting a supplement or medication it’s imperative that you speak to your veterinarian regarding your pet’s needs and any contraindications associated with each choice.
While each dog has unique needs, most of the questions that pet parents ask me are similar. They want to make sure that their dog will be OK on the medication or supplement, how long their dog will be treated, and any associated side effects. The most common concern in my experience is that their dog will be sedated. Almost every pet parent asks me about sedation!
If you went around your neighborhood and talked to your neighbors or called all your friends, most likely about one-quarter of them would be taking psychotropic medications according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (see footnote). Certainly, one-quarter of the people in your neighborhood or family are not zombies! Of course, they aren’t and your dog will not turn into a zombie either!
Let’s learn more.
How will I know if a medication is right for my dog?
The decision to use a medication or supplement as an adjunct to treatment is based on many factors.
Take the quiz.
- My dog goes from 0 to 60 very quickly.
- My dog’s quality of life is affected by his or her fear, anxiety, and stress. (His or her life is more limited.)
- My dog is a risk to others.
- My dog is at risk of hurting himself.
- I am considering euthanasia or relinquishment.
- My dog’s problem is moderate or severe.
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, your dog is probably a good candidate for a medication or supplement to reduce his stress.
What can I expect from a medication or supplement?
A medication when used alone is expected to decrease the target behavior about 50%. In contrast, supplements would be expected to decrease the target behavior by 25%. There are most certainly exceptions to this guideline. In fact, one study in which researchers surveyed parents of noise phobic dogs found that medications reduced the target behaviors 69%.2
When medications or supplements are combined with behavior modification and/or management changes, the effect can be pretty powerful reaching 85 to 90%.
Will the medication or supplement change my pet’s personality? I don’t want him to be drugged.
Medications and supplements that are used to treat behavior problems help to improve your pet’s well-being, by reducing fear, anxiety and stress by normalizing neurotransmission. In essence they change the neurochemistry of fear, anxiety and stress so that your pet can be happier and more able to learn how to cope with stressful circumstances. Sedation can be a side effect of some behavior medications. If your dog is sedated as a side effect, that side effect will usually will go away within 4-24 hours of when the medication is reduced or discontinued.
The medications that are commonly used in veterinary behavioral medicine are used also in humans and some are FDA approved for use in dogs. They will not shorten your pet’s life. We even commonly use psychotropic medications in puppies. Ask your veterinarian about how the medications are metabolized and if there are any contraindications for your pet.
The medications which are used as part of a veterinary behavior treatment plan typically are not intended to “drug” or sedate the pet. Your pet will retain his or her personality. If the medications are effective, your pet will simply be calmer and less fearful. The goal of using medications as an adjunct to behavior modification and environmental changes is to help the animal focus, learn and adjust to the changes being made. This cannot happen effectively if the pet is sedated! While short-term use of sedatives is appropriate for some behavior problems, it is not a permanent solution.
If a medication or supplement is prescribed, how long will my dog be on it?
Your pet will be treated with a medication or supplement as long as you desire and as long as it helps your dog. Some pet parents want to wean their pets off of the medication or supplement and some keep their pets on it forever because the medication or supplement has caused such a positive change. That is generally something that you will discuss with your veterinarian after your pet has been stable (the target behavior is significantly improved) for at least 2 months. Many patients are treated for a good part of their entire life. It is not uncommon for puppies to be put on a medication and for them to stay on that medication well into their golden years. Because we have used medications and supplements that alter the stress level and dogs for so many decades, we have lots of information on how they work in dogs what the appropriate dosages are and the contraindications.
Should my dog be treated with a supplement or medication?
That depends on your dog’s needs. It also depends somewhat on the ability of your family to support your dog with environmental changes and behavioral treatments. If you’re expecting a big change, your dog probably needs a medication. Sometimes people opt for supplements and that’s perfectly acceptable however the effect of a supplement is generally not as profound as a medication. Also, most supplements take longer than most medications to take effect. In other words, if you can wait a bit for an effect, your pet only needs about a 25% change in his target behavior, he is not severely affected and your family is 100% on board with the other treatments a supplement may be the right choice for your pet. If your dog is elderly or on several other medications a supplement may be the only choice that will not interact with the other medications which have been prescribed for your pet.
Which medication or supplement is right for my pet?
That is the million-dollar question. Unfortunately, there is no million-dollar answer. Your veterinarian will consider all the factors including your dog’s age, other medications or supplements that he is on, overall health and wellness, his primary behavior problem, the presence of other behavior problems, and the needs of your family, and make a recommendation. Almost always, medications and supplements that are used to treat behavior problems have to be tweaked over time. That first dose or dosing schedule probably will not be the one that is effective for your pet. It just takes time to work these things out.
Some pets, just like some people need additional help to live their best life. When used correctly, medications and supplements can help your dog be more joyful, less fearful and less stressed. The likelihood of side effects is low and your dog’s health should not be affected when you work in concert with your veterinarian, letting them guide the decisions on supplements and medications.
- Bliddal M, Rasmussen L, Andersen JH, et al. Psychotropic Medication Use and Psychiatric Disorders During the COVID-19 Pandemic Among Danish Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults. JAMA Psychiatry.2023;80(2):176–180. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.4165
- Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Stefanie Riemer. 663294; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/663294
Listen to the audio version of this article.