Pharmaceutical treatment for behavioral problems in dogs is certainly a contentious topic. On one hand, you have people who think any sort of pharmaceutical intervention can be qualified as "doping" the dog. On the other hand, you have individuals who over-prescribe medications for nearly every behavior problem - from barking to inappropriate elimination. Somewhere in the middle lies common sense.
Today I'd like to discuss some common misunderstandings about pharmaceutical treatments for behavior problems.
MEDS ARE NOT DOPING THE DOG
People are often wary about using pharmaceuticals as a component in behavioral modification because they are concerned that medications will somehow "dope" the dog and change his personality. If there is a hormonal imbalance in the body which is contributing to the behavior problem, providing appropriate medical intervention to correct that problem is much like providing a diabetic with insulin - you are simply correcting a chemical imbalance in the body. You can't train away diabetes in a person and you can't train away abnormal thyroid function in a dog.
On the other hand, medication is not a panacea, and is not a replacement for training. Diabetics may use insulin to manage their illness, but if the overall diet is poor, so is the prognosis for optimal health. Likewise, pharmaceutical treatment may be incorporated into the rehabilitation protocol for canine behavior problems, but if the medical treatment is not accompanied by training, the prognosis for rehabilitation is poor.
Effective pharmaceutical intervention for behavior problems cannot occur in a training void. Neither training nor prescriptions alone solve the problem - the two are married in the treatment protocol.
When I began using Fluoxetine with my reactive Saint Bernard, Monte, it was weeks before I noticed any change. I expected this, as someone who has long suffered with severe clinical depression and been treated with a variety of pharmaceuticals myself. When I did note a change in Monte, it was very subtle. He slept more soundly. He didn't startle into a full blown reaction if the cat knocked a pen off the table late at night. He was more relaxed, not so hyper vigilant. He was still playful, brilliant, snuggly, slobbery, and wonderful. He definitely did not act "doped up."
MEDS ARE NOT A FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
Meds will have to be prescribed by your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. Trainers and behaviorists without veterinary credentials cannot prescribe meds but will likely ask that your dog have a thorough physical evaluation including a full thyroid panel and CBC at a minimum. If medical testing indicates a problem, like abnormal thyroid functioning, pharmaceutical treatment may be advised.
If no medical abnormalities are noted, pharmaceutical intervention may be advised at a later date if:
- the owner has been consistently following behavior modification techniques and "plateaus" in progress
- non-pharmaceutical interventions have been tried (massage, dietary modifications and supplements, flower essences, D.A.P., use of a ThunderShirt, sound therapy, etc.) first
MEDS MAY BE USED TEMPORARILY OR PERMANENTLY
While some dogs may eventually be weaned off pharmaceutical treatment, others require medical treatment for a lifetime. Ask your veterinarian about side effects which may result from both short and long-term use of pharmaceuticals.
It took weeks (probably 4 weeks) before I noticed any difference in Monte after putting him on Fluoxetine. The few times we tried to reduce his dosage, it was obvious that he back-slid quickly. Monte was on a 40g dose of Fluoxetine for the rest of his life with no obvious side effects.
MEDS CAN BE RISKY
Many anti-depressant drugs currently marketed for people have scary side effects - in some users (children and adolescents, most frequently), they can actually cause suicidal feelings. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! Any time you're using medication which effects the functioning of the brain or hormones in the body, you are taking a risk. Watch your dog carefully, and if you notice an exacerbation of existing behavior problems or the development of new behavior problems, contact your veterinarian immediately.
In some situations, medications can be a great complement to appropriate behavior modification techniques. The decision to use these medications is not one that should be taken lightly - you should talk to your veterinarian about any questions you may have regarding the prescription and its potential side effects. While medications are certainly not "miracle cures" for behavior problems, they can greatly expedite the rehabilitation process for some dogs.