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Sedating the Dog

While most dogs laze around the house chomping bones all day and dreaming of chasing squirrels, a growing number serve their people as psychiatric service dogs, emotional support dogs, or therapy dogs. The fact is that many people do rely on their pets for solace and support, and anyone who has ever owned a good dog knows that the pet can do most things a best friend does, and more. But what happens when that pet needs emotional support even more than the owner does? Pets, it turns out, have mood and anxiety problems just as humans do, and drugs and devices to soothe pets are increasingly becoming big business.

Various things can set off pet anxiety, most notably being alone. In the canine realm, separation anxiety is as common as fleas. So many dogs flip into panic when left by themselves, and the result can be most unpleasant for the owner who returns home after an outing sans dog to chewed furniture, accidents on the floor, howling and barking that neighbors complain about. Studies show that 20 percent of young dogs suffer from separation anxiety, and up to 50 percent of senior dogs.1,2

This type of anxiety gets ratcheted up tenfold for pets who have to travel by air. Anyone who loves animals hates the idea of pets being stuffed into cargo on an airplane, and many pets indeed panic being in the dark holding compartment while experiencing the strange vibration of the jet. (My former dog once broke her paw trying to escape her crate mid-flight.) It doesn’t help that planes are so loud and certain pets have noise-anxiety anyway—in other words, they experience extreme fear when they hear thunder, fireworks, or gunshots—which makes flying even more stressful for them.

What can you do to help an anxious pet? Should you resort to pharmaceutical solutions if your vet is inclined that way?

Dog trainers will tell you that the first line of treatment for separation anxiety and other pet fears should be to step up the training. Pharmaceuticals should only be used as a last resort, if all else fails, and they’re only useful to make the pet more receptive to training. The first line of treatment, they say, is to make the experience of being home alone more enjoyable to the pet by hiding treats all over the house and leaving a dog-friendly channel playing on the TV such as DOGTV, which is a scientifically created, dog friendly channel created exclusively for canines—no joke.3 They also might have you shake up your routine so your pet develops new associations to your leaving-the-house ritual. In other words, you take out your keys, put on your coat, grab your purse, and then go sit on the couch and read for an hour without going out at all. This, they say, rewires the pet’s anxiety reaction to your departure cues, teaching the dog to stay calm instead of escalating into panic when you’re going somewhere. Trainers also sometimes endorse desensitization techniques like having the dog stay alone in one room while you’re in the next, then gradually introducing more distance—the dog stays downstairs when you go upstairs, and so forth.

While such training might help, not all owners have the patience to implement it, as it can take considerable time and repetition, and not all pets respond as well as might be hoped. Plus, even if the training helps with separation anxiety, it probably won’t do a thing for noise anxiety. Fortunately, there are some next-level interventions that aren’t pharmaceutical, such as the highly touted Thundershirt. Basically, this is a swaddling outfit for dogs—a snug-fitting vest that applies constant pressure to the dog’s chest, like a hug. The manufacturer claims it calms down 80 percent of dogs, and there’s a money-back guarantee if it doesn’t work.

In fact, of the more than 6,000 Thundershirt reviews on Amazon, half give the product five-stars with comments like, “OMG this piece of cloth was God sent for my rescue. [My dog] had been surrendered to the shelter several times in a very short period of time because she was a monster when left alone..... After working with her, then adding the Thundershirt, she became a completely different dog.”3 Another 16 percent give four stars, admitting that the product works although some have problems with the product durability. Certainly seems worth a try!

A similar product, the Happy Hoodie, looks like an old-fashioned toothache wrap. It swaddles the head of the dog, covering the ears and wrapping around the chin. This product gets 61 percent five-star reviews, many from pet groomers who use the hoodies to calm down anxious pets who hate the dryer after a bath.

But what if the garments and training don’t work? What then? At least three million American dogs are on anti-anxiety medications, with expenditures topping $11 billion.4 Among the cures at the disposal of veterinarians, antidepressants are becoming increasingly popular. Dogs on Prozac? That’s right. At least one study concluded that pets taking antidepressants become more optimistic, as measured by their willingness to check a bowl for food when the bowl was potentially empty.5 (Okay—it’s a stupid test. My dog wouldn’t waste his time on an empty bowl when he could as easily raid the trash, and that has nothing to do with his cheeriness level.)

Nevertheless, vets and pet owners claim that antidepressants help contain some behavioral problems that result from anxiety. Of course, the pills may incur side effects just as they do in humans. There’s the same array of possibilities—dizziness, nausea, agitation, vomiting, disorientation, even increased anxiety. Of particular concern is serotonin syndrome, which can lead to seizures and even death.

But antidepressants are by no means the only pharmaceutical used to treat anxious pets. Sedatives, too, are often given to pets, particularly pets who get too frenzied during vet exams, or when left alone, or when traveling. Experts say that sometimes these medications need to be given to calm the pet down enough for behavioral methods to be attempted, or even to complete an exam. But again, there are side effects with sedatives. Something that few owners realize is that giving pets sedatives before air travel is particularly dangerous. You can’t just slip your dog 1/2 of a valium and assume all will be well, according to the American Veterinary Pet Association. Tranquilizers slow heart beat and respiration, and in flight, when the cabins become pressurized, these effects become even more pronounced so that the pet can die from what would have been an acceptable dose on the ground.6

Even proponents of veterinary pharmaceuticals usually admit that the drugs shouldn’t be used long term, and that they should only be used to calm the pet enough to make training possible. Before you resort to drugs, you should know that there are alternatives that are less dangerous that might be attempted first, even if the Thundershirt didn’t work. For instance, many dogs respond to aromatherapy better than their human counterparts. Lavender is especially effective. I saw this firsthand when I doused my dog’s collar and kennel with essential oils before a plane trip. This was the same dog who broke her paw trying to escape the cage on an earlier trip, but with the essential oils, she remained astonishingly calm. The difference truly was day and night.

Homeopathy also works well for many pets, as do many herbal solutions. Even melatonin can help. Just Google “natural anti-anxiety for pets” and you’ll discover a world of possibilities. Better yet, find a veterinarian who practices acupuncture and/or veterinary holistic medicine.