This is a story about how I went from being the biggest skeptic to a major advocate of anti-anxiety medication for dogs.
If you’re skeptical about medications for your anxious dog I’d love to persuade you otherwise. But that won’t work. I’m not going to change your mind by bombarding you with facts.
Why? Because facts don’t change views. Being presented with facts that disagree with our views can actually make our beliefs stronger. It’s called motivated reasoning.
Motivated reasoning is how we dig out information that agrees with what we believe. It's how we avoid or discredit information that doesn’t support our view. It’s human nature and we all do it.
I would have loved this to be a convincing pro-anxiety meds article. But instead, I'm going to explain how I changed my mind on these medications.
Not me, not my dog
When first treating my dog Percy’s separation anxiety with training alone, we did ok. We plodded rather than stormed along, but we made progress. We never gained as much traction as I’d hoped for though.
At every visit, my vet would nudge me to try anti-anxiety drugs. But, I always dug in and refused. “Not me, not my dog,” I would say. I didn’t care if the evidence suggested he’d do better on them.
Then, training hit an impasse and progression slowed. The setbacks frustrated me to the point of tears.
I decided to opt for anti-anxiety meds. It felt like a last resort.
But, what a change I saw. While the medication didn't cure my dog, its addition ramped up the training. It was a tipping point in treating his separation anxiety.
So, given the evidence supporting the use of medication for anxiety, why was I so reluctant to give it a go in the first place? Well, a nagging voice in my head would chime in whenever I considered the matter. The little voice would never fail to remind me of the following “facts”.
1. “The idea a little pill can fix everything is a symptom of society’s decline.”
It’s hard to escape the culture of stigma and shame around the human use of anxiety medications. An article I recently read explains this represents a shift in public opinion that started in the late 20th century
“The popular imagination mashes together half-remembered stories of tranquillisers being prescribed to women unhappy with family life; scandals about addictive sleeping tablets; late-night viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a general feeling there is something not quite right about taking tablets intended to affect what happens in your brain.”
There is evidence human depression and bipolar disorder may be neurological in their makeup. That would put them alongside other neurological conditions such as epilepsy or multiple sclerosis. I suspect few people would have an issue with medication for treating epilepsy. But because anxiety seems more “behaviourial” than medical, treatment with pharmacology seems taboo.
If we stigmatize using anxiety medication for people, we judge even more harshly when it comes to dogs. This, despite trainers and vets confirming dogs do better on a behaviour modification plan if they are also given anxiety medications.
That’s where I was. I didn’t care about the evidence. Like many owners, I thought anxiety medications wholly inappropriate for dogs. And so I refused – until I’d exhausted every other option.
2. “But, what about the awful side effects?”
The side effects of anti-anxiety medications are well-known. These drugs have been around for 20 years. Vets have used them on thousands and thousands of dogs. For the most part, the side effects are mild, with a tiny chance of any major side effects.
But this doesn’t stop the worry. I stressed these meds would make my dog feel dreadful and we’d never know. Plus people are quick to tell you about the (rare) cases of extreme side effects.
When my dog started fluoxetine, I was on hyper-alert for unfavourable changes. I used a log to record any developments, and discussed the dosage with my vet during our ongoing visits.
I’m happy to report the only changes I saw were positive. That doesn’t mean your dog won’t experience side effects in the first few weeks, but it’s by no means a given. And your vet is there to help you make this as comfortable as possible for your dog.
3. “You’ll end up with a Zombie dog”
You'll often hear anti-anxiety medications result in an unrecognizable dog.
Maybe this concern is a throwback to recollections of the widespread use of “mother’s little helpers”. In the 1950s drugs such as Milton were hailed as the “penicillin of psychiatry”. But, a backlash began in the 70s when critics claimed these drugs were numbing the nation.
But, the daily anti-anxiety drugs we use today have a different effect on the brain. When the right dose is reached, they don’t have a sedative effect. Nor do they create an unrecognizable dog. Most owners and vets confirm that.
I thought I’d get a dog stripped or personality and enthusiasm. That I’d end up with a flatlining, lobotomized, zombie-like dog.
Luckily, what I got was the “same dog, only better”. In fact, if your dog does change for the worse, it’s either the wrong dosage or not the right drug for your dog. When that happens, you work with your vet to find the right medication at the right dose.
4. “Have you tried more natural options?”
I eat a mostly plant diet. I prefer to cook food from scratch. I also aim to feed my dogs food that looks like…well, food. That means, ultra-processed is out.
But, while I am in favour of natural as much as I can, I use veterinarian medications on my dogs. Why? Because there is no evidence natural treatments are better. Nor does natural necessarily equate to chemical-free. What’s more, natural can mean unproven, untested, and unknown.
I want a compound that is backed by research, regulated and proven to have the fewest side effects. This means a prescription medicine.
And yet when it came to separation anxiety, I refused to put my dog on a prescription for his condition. When I accepted my vet’s recommendation chemicals could help, I started my dog on a natural anti-anxiety remedy.
The natural remedy didn’t look natural. It came in pill form in a non-recyclable blister pack. And it didn’t come cheap. But it was as near as I dare come to medicating him for his anxiety.
The result? I spent a lot of money on a chemical compound that didn’t work. And I invested emotion and time hoping that with each daily dose I might see a difference. Sadly, I didn’t.
At least I can say I tried alternative medicines. And that they didn’t work for my dog.
5. “Good owners don’t medicate their dogs. They train them.”
Unfortunately, many trainers shame owners who use medications. Breathtakingly, these are often the same trainers who advocate prong collars, shock collars, alpha-rolls or other pain-and fear-inducing tools.
I find this situation beyond bizarre. Aversives trainers address anxious behaviour by using tools that make dogs more fearful. The outcome is permanent damage to the dog’s neurochemistry.
Positive trainers change fear with counter-conditioning and medications. I’d rather be shamed for understanding the science behind behaviour change than be a trainer who recommends you scare or hurt your dog.
I’ve never worked with an aversives trainer or used aversives on any of my dogs. But it did seem to me I was a failed owner if I couldn't fix separation anxiety through training alone. Now, after using medications, I realize how they complement the training process.
Think of behaviour training like training for a race. You could get a great time if all you did was focus on running. But you’d do even better against the competition if you watched your nutrition, lifted weights, and stretched.
Medication gives you a better chance of beating separation anxiety. That’s all. And it’s not training or medications, it’s both.
I’d argue using medication makes you a better owner because you’re improving your dog’s chances of overcoming his condition.
Saving and improving lives
Behaviour euthanasia is the biggest killer of dogs under three. Anxiety medications improve behaviour and help save lives. They also improve quality of life for anxious dogs, and reduce the risk of relinquishment.
I try not to think “what if I’d put my anxious dog on meds earlier” because I can’t turn back the clock. But I do wonder if it might have been the more humane thing to do.
I also suspect that, given a voice, he might have chosen the medication route. Life on anti-anxiety medication seemed much so less stressful for him. I'm sure he'd have voted for that.
If medication is something you’re considering, don’t think of it as a last resort. Instead, think of it as a way to turbo-charge your training from the outset.
Like I said, I don’t expect to change your mind. But, if you’re undecided, I hope this article might have helped you.
You should talk to your vet about any questions you have about anxiety medications. If you're interested in separation anxiety training, you can a book a free consultation with our trainers.