Trazodone (brand name Desyrel, Oleptro) is a medication used to treat depression in people. Trazodone is a human medication, but it does have a number of uses in veterinary medicine, such as managing separation anxiety, aggression, barking, and excessive licking. Some people use it nightly as a sleep aid or when they’re anticipating something stressful happening. If your dog gets distressed going to the vet or being left alone for short periods, your veterinarian might suggest using Trazodone to help manage such behavioral issues.
The medication works by keeping a chemical messenger in the brain, known as serotonin, at a level where it can help stabilize a person’s mood. Since the use of Trazodone in dogs is “extra-label,” it’s important to know about the medication’s side effects, in addition to following your veterinarian’s advice, which may differ from what’s on the label.
Uses of Trazodone for Dogs
“Trazodone has been adapted for use in dogs and cats because it tends to be very safe and well-tolerated,” says Dr. Amy Attas, VMD. A veterinarian might administer Trazodone in situations where a dog needs to remain calm, such as when they’ve just come out of surgery. If it’s orthopedic surgery, for example, the vet wouldn’t want the dog to be excited and move around a lot.
Another use of Trazodone for dogs is short-term stress relief for an event like visits to the groomer or vet clinic, car rides, or airplane trips. Some dogs get so distressed going to the vet that they start urinating or defecating in the examination room. In these instances, Trazodone would be used on an “as-needed” basis, meaning that you might need to increase or repeat the dose.
Aside from specific events like a vet visit, your veterinarian might prescribe Trazodone for daily use in dogs with behavioral disorders or dogs with phobias of events like thunderstorms and fireworks. If your dog gets so anxious that they pull out fur or destroy items in the home, Trazodone can help provide symptom relief. However, it won’t have an immediate effect. As Dr. Attas explains, “When you use Trazodone on a daily basis, you have to build up to a level where the dog has the desired behavioral changes without unwanted side effects like drowsiness.”
As with any drug that is used to treat a chronic condition, it can take a few weeks before you’ll start to see an improvement in your dog’s behavior. In contrast, when you administer Trazodone for short-term stress relief, it should be given 1-2 hours before the required time of sedation because the dosage would be higher for occasional use than when treating a chronic behavioral disorder. Moreover, your dog will return to their normal behavior once the drug wears off.
Trazodone Side Effects in Dogs
After taking Trazodone, some dogs experience upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased appetite. This should be taken with a grain of salt because “almost every drug you look up has these effects on their list,” Dr. Attas explains. “Every drug has a potential side effect.”
The most common side effect of Trazodone is that it can make your dog a bit drowsy or sleepy. “Dogs can look slightly intoxicated and walk with a stumbling gait,” Dr. Attas says. Her advice is to monitor your dog and make sure they’re not sitting up high where they might misjudge their step, fall, and hurt themselves.
In some dogs, Trazodone “can cause something called disinhibition, although it’s a very rare side effect,” Dr. Attas says. Disinhibition can occur when a dog that has some aggressive tendencies becomes slightly more aggressive after taking the medication, rather than experiencing the desired calming effect. As noted, this side effect is rare, but it’s important to exercise caution when using Trazodone for a dog with aggressive tendencies.
Trazodone Dosage for Dogs
Generic trazodone comes in 50-, 100-, 150-, and 300-milligram tablets and requires a written prescription in some states. Otherwise, your veterinarian can phone it in to your local pharmacy. Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, recommends that veterinarians should dose the dog depending on that individual dog’s medical history and possible drug interaction concerns.
For chronic behavioral issues like separation anxiety, the recommended dosage by weight is one to three milligrams per pound of body weight. You might need to increase or repeat the dose in certain situations. For example, your dog may have a fear of thunderstorms, but you can’t always predict when these weather events will occur. Accordingly, you might decide to use a lower dose on a daily basis during the summer and then increase the dosage on the nights when experts are forecasting a severe storm.
Dogs can take Trazodone on an empty stomach. But if your dog is preparing for a car ride or flight, it’s better to give them their tablet(s) with a treat or a small amount of food. “You don’t ever want to have a pet be motion sick and sedated,” Dr. Attas says. “You want them to be fully awake to make sure they’re in a proper position if they need to vomit.”
Can You Use Gabapentin and Trazodone Together for Dogs?
Like Trazodone, Gabapentin is a human medication adapted for use in veterinary medicine to treat conditions like chronic nerve pain. Dr. Klein adds that it’s been used as adjunctive therapy, or a secondary treatment paired with a primary treatment, for seizures. “We will use Gabapentin as the first line of medication for pain relief, so we don’t have to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which can upset the stomach and are very difficult on patients who have comorbidities like kidney, liver, or heart disease,” Dr. Attas explains.
Since Trazodone has a mild sedating effect, Gabapentin will provide additional sedating effects along with pain relief. For example, a veterinarian might combine Gabapentin with Trazodone following surgery, and “the drugs are safe to use together,” Dr. Attas adds. However, the use of Gabapentin to calm dogs is mostly anecdotal, Dr. Klein notes. Dr. Klein adds that dogs should not be given Gabapentin oral solution, which is sometimes prescribed to humans, as it contains xylitol, a substance that is toxic to dogs.
Any time a vet is combining medications, it’s essential for them to know if something is contraindicated (meaning that a particular medication or treatment should not be used because it could harm the patient). If your dog is seeing a veterinarian along with a behaviorist or other specialists, make sure each of them has a copy of your pet’s medical records, including a current list of medications and their dosages. They should know if your dog is taking any supplements, such as herbs or over-the-counter medications.
Keep in mind that “a veterinarian cannot prescribe a medication to a pet they’ve never seen before,” Dr. Attas says. In some states, vets cannot prescribe medication unless they have seen your dog within the last year.
If your dog gets very stressed at the vet or groomer or has a noise phobia, you can ask your veterinarian if they could benefit from being mildly sedated. A medication like Trazodone, when used on its own or in combination with drugs like Gabapentin, can help make the experience easier for your dog, yourself, and your veterinarian.