Dogs Get Anxiety, Too

How behavioral pharmacology—treating animals' anxiety with medication—has become widely accepted in veterinary practice
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Maverick, a Border Collie, lies in an MRI scanner in a neurology clinic in Budapest. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

On a calm day in December 2011, Stella and I walked home from the Brooklyn Bridge dog park along our usual brownstone-lined route. Stella, my 68-pound pit-lab mix, was a few months shy of three years old and had been dominating some of New York’s finest green spaces for more than two years. My Tennessee-born rescue had dodged her kill shelter fate to become the easiest-going canine in King’s County—until she wasn’t.

That afternoon, as we turned onto a familiar street near my apartment, Stella rose up on her hind legs like a spooked horse. She drew in her front paws, launched her body into the air and—before I could emit a Marlon Brando-esque “Stellllaaaa”—wriggled out of her snug harness. I lunged forward and caught a big enough handful of her white-tipped tail to thwart her frenzied attempt to run into a busy street. I scanned the block. There wasn’t a person, dog, garbage pile, or subway grate within throwing distance. I had no idea why Stella freaked out.

Stella’s bewildering behavior continued. Before walks, she would freeze and go into what my roommate termed “trench-warfare mode.” She would fall to the ground, dig her nails into the sidewalk and fitfully crawl back into my building. When she did submit to a walk, she did so in hapless distress—with red eyes and slicked-back ears, she’d dart into traffic or storefront entrances. I tried to tease out the source of her upset, but her inconsistent reactions to potential triggers made it tough. She had become an animal with seemingly no instinct or predictable behavior pattern.

Two years later, Stella’s anxiety remains a confusing work in progress.

She’s seen a trove of trainers and dog behavior experts. She’s eaten special diets, worn a pheromone-emitting collar and a spandex tank top for canine thunder-phobes, and taken an evolving cocktail of anti-anxiety prescription medications.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at the Tufts University Cummings Behavior Clinic, pioneered behavioral pharmacology—treating animal behavior with psychiatric drugs—in the mid-1980s. Because drug companies resisted developing veterinary versions of human drugs, the progressive practice was entirely “off-label” until 1999, and mostly still is.

Detractors aside, the once fledgling field is now fairly mainstream. American pet owners spent about $7.6 billion on pet pills in 2013 alone, according to a yearly market research report on pet medications in the U.S. Over the past 25 years, veterinary behaviorists have learned more about the biological basis of dog behavior and have used drugs to help anxious, aggressive, clingy, obsessive, accident-prone, traumatized, and anti-social dogs when non-medical solutions cannot. Shake your head and cry, “Anthropomorphism!” but in 2014, Bella the bulldog who takes the edge off with benzos is fairly normal.

Behavioral pharmacology has, in many ways, followed in the footsteps of human psychiatry. But to the dismay of frazzled pet owners, one obvious hump can impede satisfying progress: Dogs don’t talk. It’s easier to treat undesirable behavior when we know why it’s happening. Treatment can quickly resemble a game of blind darts when a dog is naughty or sad for no apparent reason.

Within a week of her meltdown, Stella moved back to my parents’ house in southern Westchester. After she refused to stroll its leafy streets, her vet put her on Fluoxetine, a generic version of the mood-stabilizer Prozac.

I fetched Stella from Westchester for a hopeful city homecoming 31 days after her first tab of Prozac. Within two days of arriving in Brooklyn, she started skipping meals and hiding when I jangled her leash. Her vet had given me an emergency supply of a short-acting drug called Acepromazine to use for acute anxiety. At 3 p.m., she still hadn’t touched her breakfast, so I slathered a pill in peanut butter and stuck my hand down her throat.

A half hour later, Stella’s pupils were dilated and watery. She started whimpering and teetered across my apartment like a college freshman after last call. I Googled Acepromazine and got nervous. Vets had used the antipsychotic drug as a pre-anesthesia sedative for decades. It did nothing to stabilize moods and sometimes exacerbated existing anxiety. I looked at Stella, with her tongue dangling from her mouth, and saw that she had pooped in my bed.  She didn’t seem to notice.

A nearby vet agreed to see Stella immediately. I loaded her slack body onto my rolling desk chair and pushed her down the hallway to the elevator. An hour later, we climbed into a taxi.

After Stella detoxed at Hope Vet, a Brooklyn veterinary clinic, Dr. Kristine Young referred us to the behavior clinic at the University of Pennsylvania and suggested that Stella return to the suburbs until her appointment date.

I know bringing my young, otherwise healthy dog to a renowned shrink sounds like sitcom fodder. But Stella was my family, and the cost of an Ivy League dog psychiatrist was more reasonable than I’d expected. To Penn we’d go.

On May 2, 2012, Stella and I followed behavioral assistant Alison Seward into a small, windowless exam room at the behavior clinic at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital. About six veterinary students sat around the perimeter of the room taking notes while veterinary behaviorist Dr. Carlo Siracusa, Seward and I went over the 55-page behavioral questionnaire I submitted.

Stella flitted around the room with jittery energy, seeking head pats and lap-time from anyone offering. After being denied attention, she grew restless and exhibited stress signals—she licked her lips, yawned, barked and pawed at the door to leave.

Next, Siracusa performed a physical exam to check for any pain that might cause behavior problems. He also held her down for an orthopedic exam, which evidently caused her pain. Most dogs defend themselves after prolonged, unpleasant force, but Stella didn’t even growl. Her unusual submissiveness, Siracusa and Seward said, might account for some of her anxiety.

We left after five hours with a behavior modification regimen and two new drugs—Buspirone and Trazodone. Dodman of Tufts said he introduced Buspirone, a non-addictive antianxiety drug, to veterinary medicine in 1987 after his (human) neighbor touted its effects. Trazodone was developed as a human antidepressant in Italy in 1966, according to a 2008 study, but became more popular for insomnia because of its sedative effect. Veterinarians started prescribing it to anxious and phobic dogs in the mid-90s. By this point, the novelty of giving Stella human drugs had worn off and I accepted that my dog was a canine mental patient.

Psychiatric drugs help stabilize chemicals in both human and dog brains. While meds like Prozac, Xanax, and beta-blockers were developed for humans, they appear to have analogous benefits for dogs. Vets and researchers have increasingly accepted functional neural similarities between the two species, according to Dodman, who compares psychiatry and behaviorism in his upcoming fourth book Like Minds.

“In the last 25 years, all of the sudden, we’ve gone from zero to 60,” said Dodman of the popularity of behavioral pharmacology. “People who aren’t doing it are out of the flow. Some vets still aren’t comfortable using Prozac, but I imagine that about 20 years from now, it will be something every vet has on the shelf.”

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Theresa Fisher is a journalist based in Brooklyn.

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