Dogs Get Anxiety, Too

How behavioral pharmacology—treating animals' anxiety with medication—has become widely accepted in veterinary practice

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.”

Dogs take psychoactive drugs for some issues that probably seem dog-like, such as thunder phobia and fear-based aggression (i.e., biting when scared). Veterinary behaviorists have also explored new drug therapies for dog behavior that one might consider distinctly human, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Canine PTSD isn’t an official term, but Dodman said dogs and humans have similar chemical and behavioral responses to crisis. More than five percent of military dogs return from combat and display PTSD symptoms including nervousness, hypervigilance, aggression and antisocial behavior, the military’s chief veterinary behaviorist has said.

Similarly, dogs abandoned after the 2011 Japanese earthquake showed problems with attachment and trainability and, researchers found, had much higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than abandoned dogs who hadn’t endured a disaster. Even seemingly minor distress, like an insect bite, can make dogs unravel. Beta-blockers, Dodman said, can effectively treat canine trauma if administered within a few hours. Psychiatric research suggests that beta-blockers are also helpful for PTSD in humans.

Dodman is currently part of a team studying the effects of oxytocin, the human love hormone, on formerly abused dogs who fear their new (non-abusive) owners. After receiving as little as one dose of oxytocin nasal spray, some of the dogs no longer demonstrated fear.

“[The oxytocin] seemed to engineer a new bond,” said Dodman.

Though psychoactive meds can stabilize chemical levels in dogs’ brains and alter their behavior, we know almost nothing about what’s going on inside those furry noggins; canine cognition is still largely a mystery. In an attempt to clear the fog, researchers have begun scanning dogs’ brains.

Last year, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, trained conscious dogs to lie still inside whirring-full body fMRI scanners. This month, he published a study in the Journal of Behavioral Processes about 12 dogs’ neural reactions to odor. Neuroimaging of the dog caudate nucleus, believed to be the reward center in the human brain, showed a distinct reaction to the smell of familiar humans—similar to humans’ caudate reaction to photos of loved ones who aren’t physically present. It’s not clear whether the dogs’ responses reflect anything more than Pavlovian anticipation of a positive reward. But this is a first step in investigating whether dogs could be capable of higher-level emotions.

Along the same lines, Yale University recently sent college-style acceptance letters to dogs selected for its brand new Canine Cognition center, where researchers plan to use neuroimaging to explore the dog brain.

After about two months of Stella’s new regimen, I noticed a small but meaningful improvement in her behavior. Stella grew less sensitive to highway traffic and other loud whirring sounds. Eliminating just a few sources of fear helped me identify consistent triggers, including flies, loud sneezes, and rain plinking on metal rooftops.

Overall, however, her progress ebbed and flowed. A bout of normal behavior—no skipped meals or stress ticks—might give way to a day lying in the bathroom panting suspiciously.

Stella has never shown aggression, which is the most common behavioral issue for which pet owners seek medical assistance. Behaviorism has helped debunk the belief that some dogs are “bad,” as The Atlantic reported in 1997 in “So Long to Bad Dogs.” Aggressive behavior, however, is a common reason people give up dogs. Shelter euthanasia is the leading cause of death for young dogs, according to the American Humane Association. In some way, I feel lucky that fear made Stella cower rather than snarl.

Sensitive dogs are likely to crumble in the wake of trauma, according to Dodman. As a brawny pit-mix, Stella doesn’t look like a dog who likes to wear a raincoat when it drizzles. Alas, she’s a wimp. I don’t know what trauma she’s endured, but the three main post-traumatic behaviors, Dodman says, are avoidance of the situation, hyper-vigilance and active dreams. Stella, who treats idyllic Brooklyn Heights like a war zone, reserves a chunk of time each day for obsessive sniffing, and doggy paddles in her sleep most nights, fits the bill.

We returned to Penn almost a year after her first appointment for a re-evaluation. Stella had plateaued after her initial behavior boost. Granted, having a nutty-but-functioning dog is better than a barely-functioning dog.

The goal was that the psychoactive drugs would balance her mood enough so that she could revisit a place she feared, like the street corner outside my building, and replace her traumatic memory with a new sublime experience. No such luck. After months of tinkering with her dosage and discussing behavior modification strategies, Stella seemed off. She was often lethargic and still froze during walks, even though I chose the most placid streets around. This behavior—halting, panicking and turning around—is what Dodman calls “balking.” Every case he’s seen of balking has involved a city dog, and almost all of them have lived in New York City.

The meds had reduced her noise phobias to some degree, but her general anxiety still flared as her energy plummeted. And her hometown, I feared, stirred the pot.

A few weeks ago, Stella walked into my Brooklyn apartment in an excited, if not slightly manic, state. As usual, I stocked up for a successful stay—fatty chews, frozen marrowbones, favorite toys, familiar blankets, her thunder-wrap, and other treats and comforts. For the first time in two years, my optimism wasn’t in vain.

Stella and I traipsed around Brooklyn like the good old days. She walked without halting, visited parks and dog-friendly stores, and mostly let me choose the side of the street we walked on. But, true to form, she displayed a new idiosyncratic behavior. She would walk almost anywhere—as long as we first went to the nearby Pet Smart. Five days, no panic. I don’t know why Stella had a successful visit, but I’d rather be baffled by her happiness than blindly fighting her fear.