Medications to Treat Abnormal Behaviors in Dogs

Before prescribing medication, your vet will discuss your dog’s behavior.
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Many dogs get anxious when their owner leaves them alone, or when thunder rumbles. When a dog reaches elderly years, it’s not uncommon for him to get anxious and confused. Certain behaviors can be modified with the help of a behaviorist or trainer, and a diligent owner is always key. In extreme cases, however, medication is an added helper.

Defining Abnormal Behavior

Excessive behaviors are lumped into four groups: Destructive, obsessive compulsive, anxious and aggressive. Five categories of medications are used to treat this span of problems. Just like with people, every dog’s personality is different. In some cases, dogs will act-up due to boredom and a lack of exercise. This is especially true in high energy or working breeds. Veterinarians typically address these issues before prescribing medications. All medications have side effects. Most are metabolized through the liver and kidneys, and regular blood work is required for monitoring.


Benzodiazepine (BZs) is a class of compounds used in tranquilizers, such as diazepam and alprazolam. This category of medication is extremely useful in specific situations pertaining to loud noises, such as fireworks and thunderstorms. Also, it’s often given before dog shows to eliminate panting, tail tucking and trembling. BZs take effect relatively quickly. However, for it to be fully effective it must be given to your dog at least one hour prior to any fearful event.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were initially labeled to treat depression in humans. They increase serotonin and norepinephrin levels in the brain. In dogs, they have proven successful in treating anxiety, such as separation anxiety, and compulsive behaviors including chewing and licking. Two of the TCAs most readily used are amitriptyline and clomipramine. Both medications have been successfully used for anxiety and compulsive behaviors. However, antidepressants are often a trial-and-error process. If your dog doesn’t respond well to either of these medications, there are other TCAs your veterinarian can prescribe.


It’s not uncommon for an elderly dog to begin showing signs similar to Alzheimer’s. Symptoms include being restless at night, wandering aimlessly or being more vocal. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are commonly used to treat cognitive dysfunction. They work similarly to TCAs, but have a more general effect on the brain. Selegiline is the most commonly used MAOI in companion animals. It works with the neurotransmitter dopamine, and studies indicate it may slow a brain's aging.

SSRIs and Serotonin (5-HT) Agonist

Serotonin is a brain chemical that helps communication between nerve cells. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are successful in treating excessive fear-related issues such as fear of people and other animals. They’re also used to treat aggressive behavior. However in certain cases, it has made dogs worse. Common SSRIs are fluoxetine and paroxetine. Buspirone is a serotonin (5-HT) agonist that is also used to treat fear and aggression. It can be used in conjunction with SSRIs and TCAs, or on its own.