By Mel Lee-Smith
Published: 10/03/2017, edited: 09/07/2022
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Canines are remarkably complex animals who react to their environment in a variety of ways. Not only do dogs experience a wide range of emotions, but they can also suffer from many of the same mental illnesses as their owners. In fact, your dog's stress levels can even sync up with your own, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Sweden's Linkoping University.
Anxiety in particular is on the rise in hounds and humans alike. It's estimated that 18% of American adults will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point. Meanwhile, 14% of dogs are thought to experience separation anxiety.
Certain stimuli, such as loud noises and new or unfamiliar environments, may frighten dogs and trigger a fearful response. However, fear isn't quite the same as an anxiety disorder. Before purchasing any medicine to calm dogs, there are some things you should consider.
Understanding anxiety in dogs
The most common forms of anxiety in dogs include generalized anxiety and separation anxiety. According to Merck Vet Manual, dogs with generalized anxiety may react fearfully to stimuli which wouldn't affect other dogs as strongly.
Dogs with separation anxiety become stressed when separated from their owners. This often results in destructive or unwanted behaviors, including restlessness, housesoiling, and chewing furniture and other possessions.
A less commonly known form of anxiety is related to old age. Elderly dogs diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction syndrome are prone to developing anxiety, in addition to other mental disorders, as their brain function declines.
Do calming pills really work? Options for dogs
Veterinarians can prescribe medications to treat your dog’s anxiety, which will largely fall into the categories of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and sedatives for dogs. Some of the most common anti-anxiety drugs that you're likely to encounter include SSRIs, benzodiazapenes, and busprione.
Selective Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs boost serotonin to soothe anxiety and stress. Some SSRIs, including fluoxetine and clominpramine, have been approved by the FDA to treat separation anxiety in dogs. (However, fluoxetine is no longer available as a veterinary product.) SSRIs may take as little as a week or as long as a month to take effect. They can also cause serotonin toxicity when administered in conjunction with other anxiety medications, namely trazodone, tricyclic antidepressants, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Side effects of SSRI medications include agitation, increased anxiety levels, loss of appetite, increased risk of seizures, sedation, and tremors.
Benzodiazapenes work as a sedative to lull the dog into a calm state. This type of medication is often used as a short-term solution on an as-needed basis and typically takes effect immediately. Benzodiazapenes are particularly effective for managing separation anxiety and can be prescribed in conjunction with certain antidepressants. Side effects include loss of coordination, agitation, overeating, and sedation.
Buspirone is a psychotropic drug, which changes the way neurotrasmitters communicate in the brain. It's particularly effective for dogs with generalized anxiety, although it's best used in dogs with no prior history of aggressive behavior. While buspirone has fewer side effects than some of the other medications used to calm dogs with anxiety, it may also increase anxiety.
Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors
Dogs suffering from age-related anxiety and cognitive dysfunction syndrome may benefit from a stronger type of antidepressant known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Like most antidepressants, this medication boosts serotonin levels and is also FDA-approved for use in dogs. Symptoms include agitation, vomiting, diarrhea, and disorientation.
Although behavioral medications formulated for humans, including antidepressants and SSRIs, are commonly used in veterinary practice, many of these medications haven't been tested extensively or approved for animals. However, dosage guidelines are in place to assist veterinarians with prescribing these medications, and they are generally considered safe for veterinary use.
Like all medications, anti-anxiety medications for dogs come with side effects. Natural, and safer, alternatives do exist and may be prescribed or recommended in conjunction with other medications to calm dogs. Pheromones, particularly Adaptil, are excellent alternatives to prescription medication. Products containing pheromones, including collars and diffusers, are available at most pet stores. Dietary adjustments may also help to soothe dogs with anxiety. Socialization and obedience training can help manage and even prevent anxiety in dogs.
Finding the best option
To conclude, medication can be a good way to combat your dog’s anxiety if it's a debilitating part of their everyday life. However, it pays to be aware of the potential dangers and pitfalls of using medicine to calm dogs, as well as the threat posed by drugs that have not been prescribed by a veterinary professional, particularly over the counter sedatives for dogs. Commonly, your vet will try to encourage the use of behavioral therapy and slow exposure to stress factors in order to help your dog overcome their problems by themselves. Pharmaceutical solutions are typically a last resort. As always, it's best practice to consult with a vet before deciding that your stressed or hyper dog needs medication.