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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features July 2014 Issue

What About Medication?

A lot of dog owners don’t like to consider anti-anxiety medication for a dog who’s so stressed she can’t calm down enough to bond. They envision some kind of canine Valley of the Dolls, perhaps. But sometimes, when all else fails, medication might allow for a breakthrough. Remember, we can’t talk to dogs. We can’t go with them to family therapy where they explain their fears and we then reassure them that we didn’t mean anything. So for a dog who cannot understand an owner’s good intentions because she’s simply too nervous to interpret them, medication can sometimes pave the way for coming to a better understanding.

Medications that veterinarians use to calm over-anxious dogs include SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft). A vet might also prescribe buspirone (Buspar), which decreases anxiety without causing sedation or psychomotor impairment.

Psychopharmaceuticals are not miracle drugs for dogs, just as they are not miracle drugs for people. But they do very often push a dog’s anxiety enough to the background that she will allow her owner to start interacting with her in positive ways; they allow her to enjoy the good attention an owner means to provide. The person still has to put all the effort in – speaking soothingly, not coming on too strong, taking care of the dog by feeding her and accompanying her on walks. That is, the drugs don’t take the place of behavior modification. And they don’t necessarily make the process go quickly. But they give the whole relationship much more of a fighting chance, to the point that the dog can eventually be weaned off the medication.

The Phillips, Gracie’s “parents,” are aware of that option. “We have not discussed medication yet,” Mrs. Phillips says, “but I do think we will address that with our vet.”

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