Nothing divides separation anxiety owners quite like the topic of medication.
It's one of the most, if not THE most, contentious topics that come up.
Many of my readers know I am pro-medication. But I don't judge those who decide not to go down that route.
It's a big decision for lots of owners, and one I know most of you don't take lightly.
But if you're thinking about putting your dog on medication, here are five questions for you. I would ask myself these questions if I went through the decision-making process all over again.
1. “Am I ready to do training?”
If you put your dog on medication, you get the best outcome for if you also put some time into training.
There are some circumstances, though, where medicating without training is the best option.
For example, if a dog responds well to short-term anti-anxiety medications, you could use the meds when you have to leave but can't get anyone to sit. The anti-anxiety meds may mean if even though he's on his own for an hour or so, he won’t go over the threshold.
A word of caution, though. If you’re going to try this, always test out the medication first to see it does have the desired effect.
Some dogs will still get very upset when they're left. In those cases, I always say, “Video your dog and see how it goes.” Be ready to come back if the meds aren't working.
If you are ready to start training, why not sign up to our 21 Day Jumpstart Challenge?
2. “Am I prepared to deal with the consequences of the medication not making a difference?”
In other words, what if the meds don't work? We know for a good number of dogs, we can find an anti-anxiety medication, which makes a difference to their home-alone issues. But not all dogs.
I always want to make sure people don't get their hopes up by thinking medication guarantees fixing their dog's anxiety.
This can lead to disappointment if the medications don't have the hoped-for impact.
If your dog turns out to be the one for whom medication doesn’t work, will you be okay with that?
3. “Can I handle the judgment?”
You're going to get a lot of this. For some reason, anti-anxiety medication seems to generate a huge amount of judgment. And the judgment can come either from other dog owners or people who don't have dogs.
A lot of this stems from the stigma surrounding mental health issues in people. Discussing mental health seems to be taboo. So little wonder people can dismiss discussion about psychological conditions in dogs.
If you others judge you about your dog’s treatment, don’t feel surprised, and try not to get upset.
I know this will be hard, but remember other people are not in your shoes. You're making a decision to help your dog feel better. You’re trying to improve your dog’s quality of life. Don’t let anyone judge you for doing your best for your dog.
As an aside, I always find it paradoxical to see owners who use shock collars show no guilt. While, at the same time, those of us who make use of anti-anxiety meds and who would never dream of hurting our dogs, feel the need to conceal what we do.
Shock collars worsen a dog’s quality of life. Anti-anxiety meds improve their lives. Which should we feel shame about and which should we be proud of?
4. “Am I ready to persevere?”
Now remember in #2, I talked about how some dogs don't improve at all with anti-anxiety medications.
But with other dogs, what can happen is the first medication or the first dose isn't the one to make a difference.
If this is the case, your vet might recommend trying different doses of a particular med. Or they may prescribe different combinations of medications.
Either way, you need patience. Starting up on a new anti-anxiety medication can take a few weeks as can tapering off an existing drug.
Of course, you might get lucky. Some dogs find the right drug and the right dose right off, but for other dogs, a bit more of a trial-and-error is necessary.
Why so? Well, as with people, we know these medicines work. But the research is still ongoing about how and why they work. And this means it's not easy to prescribe the exact medication for your dog's condition first time.
But your vet will know this and will work through different drug combinations with you.
5. “Am I okay with the expense?”
Prescription anti-anxiety medications aren't cheap. But they are usually a lot cheaper than the separation anxiety “remedies” you can buy on Amazon. And they are definitely cheaper than replacing doors or taking a dog to the vet when they've torn a nail.
So I'd position the cost of the drugs in that context.
For some dogs, you might be looking at quite a long-term prescription, but for others, it might not be. It depends on the dog.
6. “Have I done enough to quell my concerns?”
Ultimately, you're the one making this decision. You're the one who needs to defend this decision if you get challenged, so how informed are you?
If you're worried about side effects, have you done enough research and got your own answers to feel comfortable?
There's a lot of great information out there. I know the more research I do, the more comfortable I am with medication for anxious dogs.
When you’re doing your research, use Google Scholar. There’s so much misinformation and scaremongering online. You don’t need sensationalism. You need solid facts. Google Scholar is the place for facts.
And as for side effects, well, dogs and people have been on these medications for years. Where there are side effects, these aren’t major. Significant side effects are rare. And I'd say a dry mouth is way less of a medical concern than a ripped nail or the anxiety of barking for eight hours non-stop.
And remember, anything which changes a being’s chemistry or biology has side effects. Or, to put it another way, if there are no side effects, it’s not having any effect.
For me, it's a welfare issue. I want my dogs to have a good quality of life and to live as long as possible, which is why I opt for treatments which are safe, tested, and known to be effective.
What NOT to ask
As a final thought, here’s a question I don’t want you to ask yourself: “Have I exhausted all the other options?”
I often hear people say, “I put them on meds, because as a last resort.”
Anti-anxiety medication should be one of our first treatment options for separation anxiety, not one of the last.
It’s easy to get drawn in by the marketing of so-called natural remedies. They seem to offer only upsides. No wonder we want to try these first.
Unfortunately, there are way too many of these treatments out there. Compared to anti-anxiety medications, the natural or complementary medicines:
- aren’t as rigorously tested
- aren't as proven
- cost more,
- and can be marketed much more aggressively, making us think that they're the better choice
Meanwhile, while we're busy trying those different approaches, not only does our bank account suffer, but our dog delays getting the treatment, which is most likely to make a difference.
Whether you decide to medicate your dog or not, do your homework and ask the right questions. That way, you’ll know you’re going into this as informed as you can be.
So what questions do you have about medicating your dog? Comment below and let me know.
Meanwhile, you can also join the discussion over in our Facebook group.