You are likely familiar with antidepressants for humans, but their use in dogs is less commonly understood. We tend to think that dogs live in the moment and find joy in the simplest of things. Why would they need drugs to lift their mood? In fact, antidepressants aren’t usually used to treat depression in dogs. Instead, they are most often prescribed for canine anxiety and can serve as an important component of a behavior modification plan.
If your dog is nervous or fearful, antidepressants could be a beneficial part of helping your pet feel more confident and comfortable with the world.
What Are Dog Antidepressants?
According to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the American Kennel Club, a wide range of drug classes (anxiolytics, antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers) are used in veterinary medicine to treat behavior. “These types of drugs are recently being used more commonly in veterinary medicine as adjuncts to behavior modification therapy and training on some difficult or challenging dogs where training and therapy alone have not achieved the desired behavioral change,” he says.
There have only been a few veterinary clinical studies on these drugs, so the guidelines for veterinary use are based on therapeutic applications in humans. Therefore, although some of these medications are approved for dogs in specific situations, such as clomipramine for canine separation anxiety, many are used off-label. That means they do not have FDA approval for that specific use. However, they can still be safe and effective for treating your dog when properly prescribed by a veterinarian.
Some of the more commonly prescribed behavioral medications for dogs include:
- Tricyclic antidepressants, such as clomipramine or amitriptyline
- Serotonin antagonist and reuptake inhibitors (SARIs), such as trazodone
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine or paroxetine
- Benzodiazepines. such as diazepam or alprazolam
Why Are Dog Antidepressants Prescribed?
Canine behavior medications are usually used as anxiolytics, or antianxiety drugs, for dogs with behavior issues. The medication can help a dog cope in the moment or help training and behavior modification, like counterconditioning and desensitization, take place. Some common reasons a veterinarian might prescribe antidepressants to a dog include:
- noise phobia, such as fear of fireworks
- fear of places the dog rarely visits, like the vet’s office
- car rides or airplane travel
- separation anxiety
- reactivity around other animals or people
- any behavior that can harm the dog, other members of the household, or the environment
In some of these situations, the goal of medication is to get a dog through a stressful situation, like a flight or fireworks display. But quite often they are used as part of a broader treatment plan. “Different medications can be used individually or in combination when methods of basic training and desensitization are not working or have reached a plateau,” Dr. Klein explains. “These medications are often, and should be, utilized as an adjunct with proper training and desensitization.”
How Do Dog Antidepressants Help?
Behavior modification is a powerful tool. However, it’s only effective when dogs are below threshold, meaning when a dog isn’t reacting emotionally to a situation. For a reactive dog who lunges at other dogs, that might be when the other dog is 20 feet away. Unfortunately, when a dog is over threshold, it’s impossible to teach them alternative behaviors or change their emotional response. And for certain triggers, like another dog in the house, it can be extremely difficult to prevent a dog from reacting. That’s where behavioral medications come in.
When a dog’s anxiety is so severe that their triggers can’t be avoided and/or they can’t stay below threshold, the addition of behavioral drug therapy can allow the dog to learn. That improves their response to training and behavior modification. Drugs are also useful when a dog is dangerously overreactive, such as when there is fear-based aggression. Medication can make the situation safer for all involved and, again, allow the dog to learn new associations and behaviors.
Depending on the medication used, results may be almost instant or take up to a month. Certain drugs take effect in only one or two hours. These might be used when sedation is required, such as during fireworks for a dog with noise phobia. Other drugs need to be given for several weeks before you will notice any behavioral change in your dog.
Dr. Klein emphasizes that this type of treatment takes time, persistence, and patience. “Unfortunately, too often in today’s world, people want an instant result and may not be able to offer the time and effort required,” he says. “In this instance, a certified behaviorist or trainer should be consulted.”
How Safe Are Dog Antidepressants?
Overall, behavioral medications are safe and effective for dogs. However, side effects can occur and depend on the drug used and the underlying history of the animal. Some frequently seen side effects include central nervous system depression, vomiting, drooling, diarrhea, constipation, hyperexcitability, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, reduced tear production, and weight gain. If your dog experiences side effects, your veterinarian can reduce the dose or try a different medication. Also, dogs undergoing long-term use of these drugs should see their vet for regular health monitoring.
Never change, increase, or decrease your dog’s antidepressants without your veterinarian’s direction. Some behavioral medications cannot be stopped cold turkey without causing potential danger to your dog. And, of course, never give medication to your dog that was not prescribed for them specifically. Only a veterinarian should diagnose your dog’s condition.
“Any dog exhibiting changes in behavior, lethargy, or a decrease in appetite should not be assumed by the owner to be ‘depressed,'” Dr. Klein says. “Instead, dogs exhibiting those signs should see a veterinarian at once for a thorough examination which may include lab work and other diagnostics to rule out any underlying medical condition.”