The dark side of anti-depressants for dogs

More mood-altering drugs are being prescribed to pets. Are these more for the owners' benefit, or the animals'?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 6, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Dog medicine (Getty Images/Capuski)
Dog medicine (Getty Images/Capuski)

Dogs have co-evolved with humans for so long that dogs can read our emotions and may even prefer our company to that of other dogs. Likewise, most human owners believe we can intuit when dogs are sad or happy, and naturally, most owners worry about their emotional health. While in earlier eras, a dog's contentment might have been measured by access to food or play, at some point during the modern era of pharmaceuticals a new trend emerged: medicating one's dog with psychotropic drugs.

Since antidepressants were discovered in the 1950s, the trend expanded among humans: one study found that between 2015 and 2018, 13.2 percent of American adults had taken an antidepressant medication within the previous 30 days. Given that psychiatric drugs can help people, it stands to reason that they can also help dogs. That is why we now see dogs being prescribed drugs like Buspirone, Alprazolam, Diazepam and Fluoxetine. And the trend is quite common among pet owners: a 2016 survey of small-animal veterinarians found that 83 percent had prescribed the antidepressant fluoxetine to either dogs or cats.

But the increase in mood-altering drug prescriptions for dogs (and other pets) comes with a dark side, too. While humans can articulate their feelings, and say aloud whether a prescription has negative side effects, animals cannot do the same. That appears to raise clear moral questions regarding consent.

Medicating pets with psychotropic drugs also brings up questions regarding whether such medications are more for the pet owners' own comfort — or, perhaps, if they are being used as a "quick fix" to drug difficult pets into submission and bliss, rather train their pet to be calmer through training and attention.

Some experts see the psychotropic medication of pets as a major quandary. James A. Serpell, a professor of Ethics & Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, told Salon that we are increasingly moving toward a situation "where people just use these drugs routinely as a means of calming their animals down and stopping them being a nuisance." 

"We don't really know anything about the long-term effects of that on these animals," he added. "There is value to using anti-anxiety drugs in highly anxious animals if only to facilitate other forms of treatment."

Still, this does not mean that all psychotropic medications are to be avoided — rather, experts say there is merely a fine line. Temple Grandin, an autism spokesperson and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, illustrated her approach to medicating animals by comparing it to attitudes toward medicating autistic individuals. (Full disclosure: This journalist is actually autistic himself.) 

"I take an old anti-depressant called desipramine and it greatly reduced my anxiety," Grandin told Salon by email, adding that she discussed this in her book "Thinking in Pictures."

Yet Grandin did not think drugs should be a first line of defense on any animals, humans included.

"For both dogs and people, drugs should not be the first thing that is used. Many dogs need more exercise, time to play with other dogs, and explore the outside," she noted. 

Grandin noted that many autistic people such as herself "greatly benefitted from medication," and the same can be true for dogs.

That said, Grandin also does vigorous exercise every day to stay healthy. Dogs, likewise, need to be kept physically and socially active for their minds to remain in good shape.

This is why experts are concerned less about prescribing these drugs (although they acknowledge that there could be unforeseen long-term consequences) and more about how they are prescribed. The underlying dilemma is making sure that they are dispensed because an animal truly is in distress and needs a pharmacological solution.

"I don't have an ethical concern related to the prescription of a drug itself," Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical animal behavior and welfare at PennVet at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to Salon. "I have an ethical concern related to the way in which it can be abused."

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He emphasized that, as with humans, the drugs should only be used when a qualified professional has identified a behavior pathology. Dog owners need to make sure that they are not simply medicating against normal dog behaviors such as frequent barking. The behavior has to be both abnormal and harmful, and only veterinarians who specialize in veterinary behavior (veterinary behaviorists) are capable of doing this.

Erica N. Feuerbacher, an associate professor at Virginia Tech's Department of Animal & Poultry Science, told Salon by email that many studies show that psychiatric drugs can be effective in treating a variety of fear-related and separation-related problem behaviors. She added that have a moral imperative to try to do everything we can to help the well-being of animals that are in our care.

That said, in addition to not medicating against normal behavior, owners need to be wary that they are not medicating when non-medical solutions might exist.

"Owners need to recognize that prescribing meds does not absolve them of trying to help their pet in other ways — it should be seen as a supplement to other things they are doing to improve their pets' lives," Feuerbacher explained. Owners could hire a certified behavior specialist, rearrange their dog's environment to remove chronic stressors, or work on more effectively training their dogs so they will be conditioned away from harmful actions.

Siracusa noted that, in at least one respect, prescribing medication to your dog might actually be safer than a popular alternative: Hiring a dog trainer.

"There is a system in place to control drug use, but there is no system in place to control training," Siracusa explained. "Anybody without a credential can claim to be a trainer and they can do the most terrible things to dogs."

Siracusa bemoaned how people who claim to know about training dogs will suspend their dog from a leash or engage in other harmful and abusive behaviors while claiming that they are actually helping. They may appear on TV or on YouTube, but the end result is the same.

"There is a stigma for drugs because they are associated with mental illness, but again, that's a medical specialty that is regulated, while training is not regulated," Siracusa explained.

As Serpell put it, perhaps the best approach to medicating your animals is to do so if necessary — but cautiously.

"My own view is on the side of caution," Serpell explained. "Don't use these drugs on animals unless it's really necessary in order to calm the animal down and prevent the worst symptoms of anxiety, and try to think of it as a short-term thing, something that you would do for a while until you find a more satisfactory way of coping with the problem through behavior modification and things like that."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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