The medications we prescribe are designed to reduce anxiety by acting on neurotransmitters in the brain. In the past, more sedative drugs were used to manage behaviour, however we have long since moved on from this practice.
Often when animals are appropriately medicated they are better able to relax and this can look a little like sedation. Many anxious dogs aren’t able to relax on their own, and don’t get enough sleep without the help of medication.
A good trick to check if your dog is sedated or just relaxed is to see if they will engage in a fun activity with you.
Many people worry that giving medication will change their pets personality. Your personality exists when you are calm and in your “thinking” brain. The medications we use aim to slow down or prevent the activation of a pet’s “danger” brain. By giving our patients tools to stay in their thinking brain, we allow their personality to shine through even more.
A lot of animals we see have behavioural problems stemming from anxiety and fear. These animals are highly aroused and spend a lot of their time in their “danger” brain, unable to think or choose the behaviour they express. These pets struggle to learn, because they are constantly over their threshold. We use medication to improve resilience, and restore animals to their “thinking” brains, allowing them to learn.
This goes along side myth #3, medications are not an admission of failure, rather a helpful and often necessary tool in training dogs with anxiety disorders or fears. We don’t use medications to cure behavioural problems, and pets will still need lots of gentle and empathetic training to overcome their anxiety-driven behaviours.
Often medications are reached for after everything else has failed. This can lead to pet owners trying a number of potentially harmful methods to control an animal’s behaviour without accepting that the behaviour is driven by fear and anxiety and not disobedience. By getting an accurate diagnosis and utilising medication early on we more easily manage behavioural problems. The longer an animal goes before receiving appropriate care, the harder things can be to treat as the pathways in their brain strengthen with every opportunity they have to practise a behaviour.
Anxiety disorders are considered to be chronic illnesses that require ongoing management. The medications we use reduce an animal’s feelings of stress and anxiety, allowing their brains to function more typically. This then allows for behavioural modification training to take place. Think of it in the same way as a condition like diabetes; animals with diabetes are managed with insulin injections to keep their body functioning normally, they are also encouraged to follow a healthy diet and get regular exercise.
Over time, some animals may require less medication as they develop more coping strategies. But this isn’t the case for every animal. We assess our patients on a case by case basis to ensure they are getting appropriate ongoing care. Many people ask how long their pet will require medication, it is impossible to know from the outset of treatment whether medications will be ongoing or not.
There is a huge array of available medications for treating anxiety disorders in animals, and they don’t work the same for every pet. We choose the medication based on the individual circumstance of each patient; we take into consideration how the animal behaves, what their triggers are, and any other contributing factors like age or ongoing illness.
Even then we don’t always find the right medication straight away, and may need to change down the track. Unfortunately there is no blood test available to tell us which medication to choose (yet).
All medication has the potential to cause side effects, however in common anti-anxiety medications these side effects are seen very early in the course of treatment and can be managed appropriately. The medications we use have no long term effects on the body, we do recommend regular blood tests, but this is to ensure that nothing else is going on in the body that may impact your pet’s ability to break down and use the medication they are taking.
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