Different medications are used to reduce anxiety in dogs. Two have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration: Reconcile and Clomicalm (fluoxetine and clomipramine, respectively), but others also can be used. The goal of medication is to reduce anxiety in your dog, while implementing a behavior modification plan.
What To Know Before You Medicate
A variety of medications exist that can be used to treat behaviors associated with anxiety in your dog. Most pets need behavior modification therapy in combination with medication to help minimize or eliminate your pet’s anxiety. Your veterinarian or a behaviorist can help design a plan for your dog’s needs. Generally, a plan will include counter-conditioning, to get your dog used to events that previously have triggered anxiety. Positive activities also usually are incorporated, such as giving treats to your dog before you leave for the day if she has separation anxiety.
Benzodiazepines, unlike most other drugs, are okay for short-term use and can reduce fear or anxiety shortly before it occurs. They typically don’t have to be given daily, but they can cause increased excitement or anxiety if given when the animal already is anxious. These medications are ideal for pets that have storm or firework anxiety. Benzodiazepines can affect memory, so they are not ideal when implementing a behavior modification plan. Examples include alprazolam and diazepam.
Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)
MAOIs are used typically in dogs with cognitive dysfunction or dementia. Older pets affected by these diseases may develop separation anxiety secondarily. MAOIs have minimal selectivity on the brain, and the most commonly used one is selegiline. If combined with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, they can produce dangerously high levels of serotonin. MAOIs are used rarely with other types of anxiety.
Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs)
TCAs are used to treat anxiety and compulsive behaviors in dogs. They must be given daily, or they may be ineffective. In addition, it can take weeks to see noticeable improvement. Your veterinarian will want to monitor your pet carefully, including running blood work to evaluate for organ function, while your dog is on this medication because it has the potential to affect the liver and kidneys, which metabolize this drug class. Examples include clomipramine (Clomicalm) and amitriptyline.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain. They are used to treat fear, separation anxiety and compulsive behaviors. Some aggressive dogs also show improvement with SSRIs, but reduced aggression is not a reliable effect. These drugs are given daily and may need to take weeks before you see positive effects. Your veterinarian may combine their usage with a benzodiazepine or a serotonin agonist during the interim. Similar to TCAs, this drug class is metabolized by the liver and excreted by the kidneys, so routine blood work often is warranted. Fluoxetine (Reconcile) is a commonly used SSRI.
Serotonin agonists may be used with SSRIs, TCAs or alone. The medication must be given daily, and it can take approximately three weeks to see benefits, less time when combined with another drug. Buspirone is the only serotonin agonist used commonly in dogs.
Elizabeth Muirhead is a practicing veterinarian with an undergraduate degree in biological sciences. She has real-world experience with the husbandry, grooming, training and feeding a variety of household pets.