Brain Medicine for Dogs

Prozac for Pets! The media reports. You mean, all those aggravating behavioral problems of your dog can be remedied by simply popping a pill or capsule down pooches throat once or twice a day? Not so fast! It’s not that simple. The field of psychopharmacology has grown exponentially in recent years yet it still very much in its infancy. Prozac and related medications do have their place in veterinary pharmacology but it’s still a bit unsettled to what degree. Many animal behavior specialists, such as Amy Marder, veterinarian and animal behavior consultant to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital and the MSCPCA in Boston, warn that there is no panacea for behavioral problems in tablet, capsule or liquid form. “Because of the interest in Prozac now,” says Marder, “I probably get a call a day from an owner who wants to put their pet on Prozac because they’ve read an article on it.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. So, before calling your vet and asking for a prescription of Prozac to be phoned in to your pharmacy, read on.

As Victoria Voith, an animal behavior consultant with over twenty years of experience points out, the secret to correcting behavioral problems in dogs is in the diagnosis. “There is a tremendous need for psychotropic drugs in companion animals because a lot of animals can be helped by them if the appropriate diagnosis and concurrent behavioral modification techniques are used,” says Voith, “but it’s very dependent on making the right diagnosis.” Voith goes on to point out that what many dog owners consider a diagnosis is often only a description of what’s happening, not what’s causing the problem. Says Voith, “Information like ‘my dog is aggressive,’ or ‘my dog is barking,’ or ‘my dog is urinating in the house,’ are not diagnoses but only signs.”

Many veterinarians agree that diagnosing the cause of behavioral problems in pets is one of their most challenging areas of practice. Owners need to be prepared to invest the time it takes to assist the veterinarian in making an accurate diagnosis, says Voith. “It typically takes me an hour to an hour-and-a-half because I need so much information.”

A typical consultation to determine the best course of action and whether one of the new psychotropic drugs may be indicated involves a thorough history and complete physical exam. The environment in which the pet has been raised and kept in needs to be thoroughly explored as well. Often, environmental factors play an important role in the behavioral abnormalities. For example, if the dog has been left alone all day long in a small pen or cage without anything to play with and has now developed a lick granuloma, the environmental problem needs to be corrected first before attempting to treat the condition with drugs.

One of the most important tools used by animal behaviorists to make an accurate diagnosis is the behavioral history. “The purpose of a behavioral history,” says Marder, “is to find out how a behavioral problem has developed, what an owner has done to influence the development and expressions of the behavior, and what treatments have been tried. Also, through the behavioral history, you get what is happening at the present time.”

Some of the typical questions that are asked are:

1- What is the problem and what prompted them to make the appointment?

2- Are there any known medical problems?

3- What were the last three incidences of the behavioral problem? What was the stimuli that elicited the behavior and what did the owner do immediately after and how did the dog react to the owner’s actions?

4- What is the animals lifestyle? In describing a typical 24-hour day, the veterinarian may obtain additional clues as to what is causing the problem.

5- How serious a problem does the pet owner feel it is? What are they willing to do to correct the problem? Is the owner willing to consider drug therapy or do they prefer avoiding the use of drugs?

From these general questions, the behaviorist will then ask specific questions depending on what the behavioral abnormality is such as how does the dog act in specific situations.

A thorough examination is also indicated to further rule out physical problems which may be causing or contributing to the changes in behavior. For example, a dog urinating frequently in the house may not be exhibiting a behavioral problem. He may simply have a bladder infection which is causing the dog to void his bladder more often.

Once an accurate diagnosis is made, if indeed one can be made, the next challenging question arises, “What to do to correct the problem?” There is no pat answer to the question. Each behavioral problem and each case must be considered on its individual merits. In fact, what works on one dog may not work on another dog with the same problem. This is where the science of behavioral modification therapy becomes an art form.

Is Prozac or one of its pharmacological cousins the answer? Often not by themselves, says Voith. “The drugs are an adjunctive therapeutic tool and often by themselves may not be beneficial where as in combination with a variety of other approaches they may be beneficial.”

Nicholas Dodman, director of behavioral science at Tufts University, takes a more positive position with the new generation of mind drugs, pointing out that one of their biggest advantages is the lack of undesirable or harmful side effects.

Prozac is one of a group of drugs known in pharmacological circles as specific serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SRI’s. One of their main advantages over earlier drugs is that they act on specific receptor sites in the brain. Dodman compares these “smart drugs” to the specialized smart bombs used during the war with Iraq. They are highly specific which greatly diminishes undesirable side-effects. On top of this, each one of the drugs act a little bit differently, Dodman points out, so if Prozac doesn’t produce the desired result, clomipramine or sertraline may.

According to Dodman, these medications may often produce dramatic results, especially in protracted behavioral problems which have been unresponsive to more conventional approaches. “People are exclaiming. People are writing letters,” says Dodman. “It’s not just ‘I think it’s improved a little bit.'” At the same time, Dodman concedes this is not true in every cass, pointing out that on other cases, the clients weren’t particularly impressed by the results.

What are the behavioral problems most likely to be helped through psychopharmocology? Although the list varies depending on the expert you ask, most agree that drug therapy should at least be considered with the following types of problems:

– Aggression

– Fears and anxieties

– Obsessive-compulsive disorders

– Depression

While the final verdict is out on many of these conditions as to how effective the new smart drugs are, Dodman points out that early indications suggest they are highly effective in many cases of aggression, a group of behavioral problems particularly difficult and upsetting for pet owners. This may be particularly true for dogs who are classified as dominantly aggressive. Since dogs are pack animals, they may develop similar behavioral

patterns with their human “pack”, directing their aggressive nature to one or more of the family member. Although not universally effective, Dodman has found Prosac to be effective in some of these cases.

Fears and anxieties is another group of behavioral disorders which may be helped through drug therapy including fear to such common problems as thunderstorms and loud noises such as gunshots. Separation anxiety, as occurs when a pet is left by its owner for an extended length of time is another problem which may be alleviated through the use of one of the new generation of mind drugs.

A third class of behavioral problems which may be helped through modern day pharmacology are the obsessive disorders. Such problems as lick granulomas where the dog licks or chews at an isolated area for long periods of time for no apparent reason, are not only common but also exasperating to pet owners and veterinarians alike. Other obsessive disorders which have shown improvement from drug treatment are: fly biting, where the dog appears to snap at imaginary objects around him, tail chasing, and flank sucking.

Depression in dogs is a controversial subject among animal behaviorist. Although there has been no conclusive evidence that depression exists in dogs, many veterinarians have seen cases in which dogs have at least appeared depressed, especially when either the owner or another dog in the household dies. In these “field cases” of depression, the mood elevating qualities of Prozac may be indicated at least on a short-term basis.

Psychopharmacology is a growing field of veterinary medicine poised on the leading edge of what’s possible for our pets as we rapidly approach the 21st century. These powerful “smart drugs” aren’t panaceas for every behavioral problem but in combination with other regimens already available, they add to the arsenal of what veterinarians can offer to the thousands of pets who suffer from behavioral problems brought on by our stress-filled environment. Perhaps as Dr. Dodman hopes, many of the pets who were once euthanized each year due to behavioral problems can now be helped to live a more normal life with us humans.