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Are drugs the answer?

The majority of behaviour problems in dogs are successfully treated with help from professional behaviourists. However, sometimes behavioural work alone isn’t enough. In these cases drugs can have a useful place alongside the other tools of the behaviourist’s trade.

In most cases where drug therapy can help, the root of the problem is anxiety based. These problems often occur in dogs who haven’t been given the advantages of a comprehensive socialisation/ habituation programme as puppies — and so as adults they are the ones most likely to develop fears and phobias (to fireworks for example).

 The most common behavioural issues/problems that are treated using drug therapy include:

  • Fear/anxiety.
  • Travel.
  •  Separation-related disorders.
  • Noise phobias.
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (similar to Alzheimer’s).
  • Compulsive problems (such as tail chasing, spinning, self-mutilation, and imaginary fly catching)
  • Pain (a dog in pain can show changes in behaviour).
  • Sex (hormones can be used to temporarily reduce libido in male dogs and the associated behaviour problems, while phantom pregnancies can cause behaviour problems in bitches).
  • Aggression — (however aggression is the manifestation of an emotional problem, and that has to be identified and treated before considering drugs).

What is fear conditioning?

Fear conditioning is unlike any other kind of learning, and it can quickly become established as an anxiety or phobia which will worsen over time. If left untreated, it can be difficult to treat with traditional behaviour-modification approaches, such as counter-conditioning. In these dogs, use of an appropriate drug that will make them less anxious allows the behaviourist a window of opportunity to work with the dog, to give him more positive ways to deal with the situation.

When should drugs not be used?

While drugs can be useful for behaviour modification, it is really important that they are not used without good reason. Inappropriate use of prescription medication in dogs is a problem, and often arises when an owner expects a dog to live harmoniously in an environment completely unsuitable to meet his hardwired needs. A good example would be a Border Collie who is expected to live confined in a small flat with little exercise and with no opportunity to engage in his breed-specific behaviours. Such a dog will find other ways to be a Border Collie — perhaps following the owner around and nipping their feet, herding the children, spending all day pacing at the window barking at passers-by in the street outside, or many other outlets for his frustration which may be labelled as a behaviour problem by the owner.

There are prescription drugs that will help to reduce the frustration of such dogs, helping with the owner’s perceived problem, but such use is unethical and not in the dog’s welfare interests — and may even be in breach of the Animal Welfare Act, which says that animals need to be free to show natural behaviour.

Who prescribes them?

Your trainer or behaviourist can’t prescribe drugs for your dog — no matter how knowledgeable they may be. However, when a professional behaviourist is working with a dog with a severe behaviour problem that may require drug support to aid rehabilitation, the dog will already have been checked by the vet and medical conditions ruled out, and so the vet and behaviourist may discuss appropriate options for medication for the behaviour problem.

Weigh up the risks

While drugs can help, their use is not problem-free. All drugs have side effects and wherever any drug is used, the vet and dog owner need to discuss these and weigh up the advantages against the disadvantages of using a particular drug on a case-by-case basis.

Factors that need to be considered include:

  • The age of the dog.
  • Any pre-existing medical conditions such as kidney disease or liver disease.

That said, the drugs used to treat behaviour problems in dogs have been in use in humans for many decades and a great deal is known about them and their side effects.

Thanks to Robert Falconer-Taylor MRCVS, BVetMed, DipCABT, veterinary behaviourist, and partner, a course author and tutor of the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE);

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