Psychiatric medication for pets? Absolutely!

By Dr. Amy Pike

The use of psychotropic medication for pets with behavioral disorders is often a key component for a successful behavior modification plan.

According to data published by the Centers for Disease Control, between 2011 and 2014 one in nine Americans reported having taken at least one antidepressant medication in the past month. That number is significantly increased from the 1980’s when only about one in 50 people did. The rise of medication usage and the normalization of pursuing psychotherapy in people has also led to the same trend in veterinary medicine, much to the benefit of our patients.

The goal of psychopharmacology is not to sedate the pet or make them a “zombie,” a concern I hear commonly from owners who are hesitant about the use of medication. The goals are to decrease the intensity of the targeted behavior, the frequency of the targeted behavior, and increase the pet’s ability to recover after a triggering incident. Medications decrease the fear, anxiety and stress that are driving the targeted behavior. In addition, a huge part of that is to decrease the hyperarousal that is preventing learning from taking place. No mammal, including humans, can learn new skills or coping mechanisms when they are worried, stressed or in “fight or flight” mode. Think of it as trying to learn how to speak a new language immediately after finding out a family member passed away- you simply can’t.

In general, there are two broad categories of psychotropic medication daily and situational.

Daily medications are those that must be given on a daily basis and may take weeks to see full effect from. Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as Elavil® (generic name- amitriptyline) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac® (generic name- fluoxetine) fall into this category.

Situational medications are those that can be given prior to known stressors such as visitors, storms, fireworks, or travel. These medications may take several hours to see full effect from and may need to be redosed as needed. Desyrel® (generic name- trazodone) and Xanax® (generic name- alprazolam) fall into this category.

At present, there are only five FDA approved medications for our veterinary patients. The approved daily medications are Clomicalm® (Novartis) and Reconcile® (PRNTM Pharmacal) for separation anxiety in dogs, and Anipryl® (Zoetis) for cognitive dysfunction. The most recent additions to the market are the situational medications Sileo® (Zoetis) and Pexion® (not yet commercially available) by Boehringer Ingelheim for storm and noise phobias. However, as veterinarians, we commonly use medications approved for human use in an “off-label” fashion for our patients and this is no different within veterinary behavior medicine. Veterinary behaviorists commonly prescribe well-known human medications to our patients such as Zoloft® (generic name- sertraline), Effexor® (generic- venlafaxine), Lexapro® (generic- escitalopram), Neurontin® (generic- gabapentin), and Lyrica® (generic- pregabalin), just to name a few.  

There are numerous behavioral disorders of cats and dogs that can benefit from psychotropic medication, including (but definitely not limited to) separation anxiety, aggression, compulsive disorders (spinning, tail chasing, light/shadow pouncing, etc), urinating and defecating outside of the litter box, impulse control disorders, storm and fireworks phobias, and cognitive decline as pets age (similar to human dementia). It is important to remember that psychotropic medications are not a magic wand. They will not completely eliminate a behavior, nor will they cause your pet’s personality to completely change. They are an adjunct to appropriate positive-reinforcement based behavior modification to teach the pet alternate behaviors or coping skills during stressful situations.

If your pet is suffering from a behavioral disorder (no matter how mild), how should you go about getting treatment? First and foremost, speak with your veterinarian. There may be a medical component to the behavior and this must be ruled out and treated prior to pursuing behavioral interventions. Next, stop using any sort of punishment techniques or tools (scolding, spanking, shock collars, prong collars, etc.) as these have been scientifically proven to increase fear and anxiety and will ultimately worsen the disorder. Next, ask your veterinarian about a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist can determine if medication is appropriate for your pet and will develop and coach you on how to implement a training and behavior modification plan. Appropriately treating your pet’s behavioral disorder using humane training and, if necessary, psychotropic medication, will help your pet, and you, live the best lives possible, together.

About the Author: A 2003 graduate of Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine and a former captain in the US Army Veterinary Corps, Dr. Pike completed a residency program in behavior medicine in 2015 and today is chief of the Behavior Medicine Division at the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia in Manassas.

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