Dog Separation Anxiety Medication - Update 2020
The use of medication to help treat dogs with separation anxiety is always a hotly debated topic – and one of our most read blogs. Owners are often trying to determine what the right path forward is for their pup, and trainers are looking other opinions on how medication may fit into a training plan.
I’ve updated this blog as of August 2020, which is over two years since it was first written. Although my stance on medication has stayed the same, some information has been updated, and there is actually new medication available on the market now as well. If this is your first time here, welcome! If you’re here for the updated content, welcome back! Read on to learn more about dog separation anxiety medication!
Unique in Every Way But One
It has been an absolute honor to have spent almost 20 years working with dog separation anxiety clients. I have learned so much and gained a tremendous understanding of the nuances of this condition. Every dog is a unique individual and presents something slightly different for me to discover and integrate into their training protocol. It is one of the things that makes this work so fascinating; each case is so distinctive and as a result there is never a dull moment. There is one thing that is a constant with every single one of these dogs; they are all experiencing a behavioral emergency. In this blog we will discuss treatment options more in depth, including dog separation anxiety medication.
The first time I heard the phrase behavioral emergency my mind screamed YES, THAT’S EXACTLY IT! Dog separation anxiety (or its more commonly diagnosed form, isolation distress) is truly a panic disorder. Although this may seem completely irrational to guardians, it’s as real as it gets in the eyes of the dog. Fear floods over the dog. Because of this, it can (and most often does) manifest in many outward ways. These include common indicators – vocalization, destruction, and elimination. And remember, these are just some of the outward symptoms – inwardly the dog’s heart rate is soaring and we can only imagine how he is feeling internally from this alone-time terror.
Welfare is Key
Why is it important that we realize that dog separation anxiety is a behavioral emergency? Because treating the condition is genuinely a welfare issue for the dog.
There are real and long lasting (even permanent) emotional and physical issues that can derive from separation anxiety. It’s imperative owners realize as quickly as possible that their dog’s well being is in jeopardy. If a dog was unable to walk, or had very labored breathing, most owners would consider this an emergency and seek professional help right away. The exact same response and sense of urgency is needed for separation anxiety.
In 2020, it is estimated there are 89.7 million dogs in the country. This is up from a 2015-2016 study from the American Pet Products Association that estimated that there were 63.4 million dogs owned in the United States which equates to just about 50% of households owning at least one dog. In a study done by Eli Lilly in 2007 it was reported that 17% of dogs in the U.S. suffer from dog separation anxiety. This means there would be almost 11 million dogs that are affected by this condition. This is not surprising since a publication by Sherman and Mills in 2008 discussed that upwards of 20% of the cases referred to animal behavior practices in North America are diagnosed with SA. As this is so prevalent we can see that this issue needs some serious attention.
Because these dogs are suffering, treatment must be carefully and seriously considered. That treatment includes managing the dog’s alone time, using a training process called gradual desensitization, and talking to a vet about the potential inclusion of medication for the dog.
It’s important to note that in recent years, many “quick fix” products, services, and even apps have hit the marketplace, all claiming to be the silver bullet to cure dog separation anxiety. In my experience, none of these solutions are effective, and some are even harmful to the process. Unfortunately there are still no quick fixes in 2020.
Dog Separation Anxiety Medication Basics
There are several types of dog separation anxiety medication available on the market. Although there are many choices, only three are FDA approved. These three medications are Reconcile (brand name for fluoxetine or more commonly known as Prozac), Clomicalm (brand name for clomipramine), and the newly approved (Late 2018) Pexion. It is important to note Pexion is currently only approved to treat phobias and noise aversion in dogs, though like many other medicines it likely can be used as an effective “off label” treatment. Let’s explore each option more in depth.
As I just mentioned Pexion received FDA approval for noise aversion in dogs in December of 2018. The specific use case that led to approval was a case study in which client owned dogs were given Pexion two days prior to New Years Eve, a time when fireworks are very prevalent. To measure the effectiveness of the drug, a placebo was given to a control group of dogs as well.
The owners then evaluated the dog’s response to fireworks that were set off at four preset intervals, giving another measure of control. It was found that dogs on Pexion showed less of a reaction to those dogs in the control group. The owners of 66 percent of dogs receiving Pexion scored the overall treatment effect as excellent or good, compared with 25 percent of dogs receiving the placebo. Pexion is administered twice daily two days before the expect noise stimulation, and is available in 100mg or 400mg doses.
So What? My Dog has Separation Anxiety. Pexion is for Noise Aversion
Yes, Pexion is in fact FDA approved for noise aversion therapy in dogs, and not yet for separation anxiety. However, like many other treatments, both medicinal and natural, the treatment may be very effective even though it is not the intended use. The fact is noise aversion and general phobias are very common in dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, and the drug clearly has a calming effect. The sense of calm a dog can receive from a treatment such as Pexion may allow them to receive more effective training, therefore overcome separation anxiety at a much faster rate. More data is needed to determine if Pexion is effective in treating dogs with separation anxiety, but early results are promising.
Until Pexion, the newest FDA approved dog separation anxiety medication was Reconcile. It is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), which is intended to help reduce anxiety. Reconcile is administered daily. This medication should allow the dog to have more tolerance in their alone-time threshold thereby helping in the training process. As with any medication, there can be side-effects. In my experience, the most commonly observed are some inappetence and/or some mild lethargy. These and other seen side-effects tend to go away after a short time once the medication has been adapted in the dog’s system. Because every dog is different, each individual may experience unique medicinal reactions.
Clomicalm is a try-cyclic antidepressant. It is the first FDA approved dog separation anxiety medication. The way it is different than an SSRI is that rather than just targeting the one neurotransmitter (serotonin) it affects others as well. Like Prozac, Clomicalm (or its generic version) is administered daily. This will help to bring the dog’s anxiety level down to assist the training process. The more common side effects that I have seen amongst my clients using this medication are lethargy, increased thirst, and sometimes digestive upset. Again, these tend to wane after a short time on the medication.
Med Behavior Goals
The goal of any behavioral medication use is to not alter the dog in such a way that his personality is changed or that he is sleepy all the time or appears doped! If you see anything like that when using any behavior medication, you should let your veterinarian know so that they can consider adjusting the dosage or using a different med altogether.
The goal of any supplemental medication to professional separation anxiety training is just that – it is supplemental. The medication is intended to give a dog just enough sense of calm so he can focus more and react better to the training provided. Think about it this way – if you are scared of spiders, and all of a sudden have a five tarantulas walking on your body, would you be in the right state of mind to learn anything new? I’m guessing the answer here is a resounding “No”. Fill in the phobia that impacts you the most, and put yourself in the dog’s position. They are petrified when they are alone, so anything that can be done to help them calm down will make them more likely to learn new behaviors.
All of the above dog separation anxiety medication options can have contraindications (can interact badly) with other medications. This can occur with natural remedies as well so it is imperative to discuss anything you are giving to your dog with your veterinarian.
I cannot stress this point enough. Looping in your vet before you begin treatment of any kind is a must. In fact, many trainers and CSATs work closely with veterinarians and behavior professionals to develop a comprehensive plan for your dog. When you are considering any type of treatment that alters a dog’s behavior, even slightly, work with professionals who can give you educated opinions based on science, facts, and experience.
Lots of Availability
As previously stated, the only FDA approved meds are Reconcile, Clomicalm, and Pexion. There are however, a host of other meds that are available. Most medications chosen as a first line of defense are daily antidepressants. There are also adjunct medications that can be used either alone or in conjunction with a daily med to help further with the anxiety. A veterinary behaviorist or behaviorally savvy veterinarian will help make the right choice for your dog. Please know (and be patient with the fact) that there may be some trial and error as you wade through the process of discovering exactly what the right pharmacological mix is to best support your dog.
Puppies and Medication
Although the use of medication for calming dogs is already a hotly debated topic, the use of medication in puppies is even more controversial. Again, to be clear I am not a vet professional, but I do work closely with vets, behaviorists, and other organizations like shelters. It is becoming the widely accepted position of many vet professionals that intervention with medication and training at a younger age can be very beneficial for dogs. It’s always important to consider what is best for your dog, and rely on professional advice compared to personal feelings.
Take Time to Consider
I urge you to consider speaking to a veterinary behaviorist or your personal vet if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. If you think that you should wait to consider meds when things get really bad, or when you’ve tried everything else, or when you have done a few months of training by itself first, you could really be doing your beloved dog a disservice. Honestly, if you had an infection and your doctor decided to wait on antibiotics until advanced sepsis set in, wouldn’t you think that was an exceedingly poor decision? In my opinion, and that of the many vets I have worked with, medication for separation anxiety has minimal risk. Dog separation anxiety medication also has lots of potential benefits that can help your dog achieve a better quality of life, and as such really should be considered.