Sometimes separation anxiety training isn’t enough. Strike that. Oftentimes training isn’t enough.
In my 16 years of work treating separation anxiety, I have seen so many dogs whose training plodded along slowly until they started taking anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications. Then suddenly, their capacity to handle longer and longer absences grew to new heights.
Of course, not all dogs need medication to overcome anxieties, but those that do need the support should be given the opportunity. The problem is, however, that many people have strong feelings as to why they shouldn’t use pharmacology at all for their dogs, or if they do, only as a very last resort.
Concerns about using medications are valid and can include questions about the financial burden, how the meds might affect the dog’s personality, worries about side effects, and even personal biases against medication use in general. To be clear, I am not a veterinarian, and I am in no way advising on your personal dog’s medical care.
What I want to do today, instead, is simply discuss some of the reasons why people tend to hesitate before using medications, and see if we can clear up any misconceptions. My goal is to help you appreciate that medication use with anxious dogs can truly be a positive. Hopefully we can dispel of some of the worry-driven motives, so that those dogs that need pharmacological support will get it sooner rather than later.
Let’s take a look at the top 15 most common apprehensions people have about using medications to treat their dog’s anxiety and hopefully assuage any concerns:
It’s merely sedation
The medications that are typically used for separation anxiety are not sedatives. While some veterinarians might prescribe a sedative for episodic purposes, that is not the kind of medication we are usually referring to. For separation anxiety, a veterinarian will most commonly prescribe an antidepressant, which is designed to help mitigate the anxiety that the dog is experiencing, rather than simply sedate the dog.
Makes the owner feel like a failure
I wish I could shout from the mountaintops about the fact that you are not failing your dog by using medication — you are HELPING your dog! Any being that is experiencing anxiety is suffering. Why wouldn’t you want to help to alleviate your dog’s suffering if you can? Beyond that question, studies have shown that when medication is used in tandem with separation anxiety training, the pace of the training goes faster. So, with medication, a pup can feel better emotionally and overcome sep anx quicker. Is that failure? No! That’s a huge win!
The dog should be able to get better with training alone
Well, this “might” be true is some cases, but it also might not. Let’s look at from a different perspective. If your best friend was suffering from extreme depression — she’s unable to work, she’s not eating, she’s crying nonstop — and you knew that she could begin feeling better much more quickly if she took medication while undergoing therapy, would you want her to wait a few months to see if the therapy could get the job done on its own?I’ve seen so many dogs feel better sooner and overcome their separation anxiety much faster with medications, so when I discovered that my Tini had separation anxiety, I worked with my vet to find the right medication for her while I trained her. I wanted to do everything I could to help lessen her suffering.
Giving medication means there is something really seriously wrong
Making a choice to use medication does not mean that the dog’s condition is severe. In actuality, all levels of anxiety can benefit from medication. And in most cases, the sooner meds are administered to help lower the anxiety, the quicker progress will be realized. Because separation anxiety is not a quick fix, and because it can affect the quality of life for everyone (dogs and people alike), I personally think it’s prudent to look into medication sooner rather than later.
Concerns that the medication will change the dog’s personality or make him into a zombie
As I mentioned above, most separation anxiety dogs are treated with anti-depressants, not sedatives. So drowsiness or lethargy are not commonly seen, except possibly as an early side effect, which tends to go away fairly quickly. What we usually do see, instead, is a more happy-go-lucky dog, because the medication is doing its job to lower anxiety. Large personality changes aren’t something that we observe often, but if they do happen, there are other medications to try.
Worries that the dog will simply want to sleep all the time and not actually be better
Along the same lines as the previous point, sedation is not commonly a problem, and if present, it will often dissipate after a little while on the medication. Rarely do sedatives completely fix a phobia like separation anxiety — a dog won’t suddenly go from being anxious to sleeping. Instead, anti-depressants work because they help us to lower the dog’s anxiety so that we can gain further purchase on the problem with behavior modification.
Cost of medication
Understandably some guardians are on a tight budget, however the anti-depressant-type medications are not usually pricey. Some brands are more expensive than others, but in most cases, a cheaper, generic version is available. To give you a sense of the price ,my personal 45-pound dog needed anti-depressants for a while, and they cost only $20 a month.
The hassle of dispensing medication and maintaining vet visits
True, it is not always easy to administer medications to some dogs, but for most, giving a pill or two per day with some really tasty treats will do the trick. Vet visits will, of course, have to be maintained, but I think a dog’s comfort and well-being are worth that!
Medication is unnatural
Any substance that we give to our dogs can be deemed “mood altering,” including the most natural of substances such as amino acids or holistic remedies. The one thing that is so important to remember is that many of the alternative therapies are not regulated and might not have actually been proven to be effective. Moreover, some alternative substances can be downright dangerous if contraindicated for that dog — a problem that can occur when non-veterinarians experiment with multiple remedies.
Feeling that one might be judged for using medication
This one makes me sad because I realize that judging people for their behavioral-pharma use is still pervasive in our culture. Hence, it’s not a big leap that some may, likewise, judge us for giving medication to our dogs. When doing what is best for your dog, whatever that may be, feel strong in your decision. What’s best for you and your family is what really matters.
Thinking that medication is only used as a last resort
Spending months or more making little to no progress with separation anxiety is incredibly difficult on guardians and dogs alike. And waiting to use meds as a last resort can take considerable time away from achieving alone-time success. Given that studies have proven that medications can both speed up the training and benefit the dog’s overall wellbeing, it’s hard to argue against starting meds as early as possible when treating separation anxiety.
Fearing the risk of possible side effects
Possible side effects with most of the commonly prescribed SA medications can vary, and as such, keeping a watchful eye as to how the dog is reacting is important. The side effects can include such things as appetite reduction or mild lethargy in the beginning, however most dogs acclimate to the medication with a little time. The risk of serious side effects is rather rare, but as with any type of medication, monitoring the dog is important in the event that a change may be needed.
Lack of understanding how to know whether the meds are working
It’s true that dogs can’t verbally explain to us if they are feeling better, however carefully monitoring progress and changes in the behavior modification protocol will allow us to see when the medication is working. How much the meds help a dog will vary from case to case, but watching and tracking the dog’s body language carefully can tell us when we are seeing positive results.
Experience with someone else’s dog where they said meds were bad
Every dog is a unique individual, as is the case with most species. My husband takes an allergy tab and will sleep for hours; I take one and have no sleepy side effects. In fact, I seem to get a little hyper. As long as you carefully monitor your dog, you’ll be able to work with your veterinarian if any changes need to be made.
The potential for disinhibition
(example: if aggression is being suppressed by anxiety, the addition of meds could unmask it when the anxiety is relieved – with lowered inhibitions, a dog who initially cowered in fear might now growl or snap) The possibility for any side effect exists, however this one is rather rare. Much like with human medications, if one med is not giving the optimal benefit, there are others that can be used. Careful monitoring of the dog when any medication is prescribed is important so that adjustments can be made if needed.
To sum it all up
The biggest takeaway that I hope people get from this blog post is that they are not alone in their concerns about medication use, but that there are extremely valid arguments in favor of it. Remember, the dog’s welfare is always your top priority, and that includes mental health.