Does My Dog Need Prozac?*

The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.

There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.

A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.

colored pills spilling out of a bottle

If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.

**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.

*This is also the name of my upcoming book.


24 comments so far

  1. Lorie Huston, DVM, CVJ on

    Great post, Debbie. This is an area where a lot of pet owners have some deep-seated misconceptions, many of which you addressed here. It’s something I continually deal with too.

    I’m also very pleased to hear you have a new book coming out. I can’t wait to read it!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lorie! Vets are central to the process and people are lucky to find one like you who can support them through the ups and downs of med choice and dosage.

  2. peacelovenwhiskers on

    I’ve often wondered about giving pets in general medication like Prozac. I think it should only be done in extreme cases. I’ve only ever given my cats pills to relax them when we moved four hours south. One of the three fought it and meowed the entire way to the new place. Other than that they haven’t had anything else. I would love to know more about pets who are on meds and why.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think the challenge is defining “extreme.” How much suffering is ok to subject an animal to and how much is too much?

  3. Denise Litchfield (grrl and dog) on

    After extensive work with a behaviourist, we decided prozac would be assisting our fear aggressive dog to live a happier, less triggered life. But its not set-and-forget. We still monitor his environment for possible triggers outside – mainly other dogs – and use lots of positive training. The difference in him is remarkable.
    But dont just think you can pop him a pill and all your work will be over.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true. Meds are NOT an excuse to continue to subject dogs to things that upset them without a behavior modification plan in place.

  4. Lisa on

    Debbie, thank you so much for writing this using logic and a level head. I have a 3 year old Rottie/Lab mix who has been fearful and anxious since the day we rescued him when he was 10 weeks old. He is bonded (my husband calls it welded) to me, and gets along well with our 8 year old yellow Lab. We put him on Prozac when he turned 2, and the results, while not extraordinary, have been noticeable. I am now able to manage his triggers better. I feel as though he no longer sleeps with one eye open. While he is still unsure about my husband, or close friends who visit, his fears no longer rule his life. And while he may never be the dog “society” thinks he should be, I will help him learn, advocate on his behalf, and accept that we are doing our best with what we are given. Drugs like Prozac are misunderstood, both for dogs and humans. I hope we can one day overcome the stigma. In the meantime, my mantra is Manage. Manage. Manage. – one day at a time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good to remind folks about the importance of management. And that we keep building on learning as we go. Baby step by baby step.

  5. Anu on

    I initially resisted the idea of medication for my fearful little dog, Remy, but after trying everything short of prescription meds I finally decided that I owed it to Remy to try.

    Valium was first with no effect whatsoever. Next, my vet recommended a month’s trial of Trazadone. Same thing, no change. The good news here is that Remy suffered no side effects from either.

    Now I’m giving Remy 5 mgs of paroxetine nightly after his evening meal. I’ve been told that this medication needs a minimum of four to six weeks to take effect. We’re 40 doses in as of last night, which is just about at the six week mark.

    The changes I’ve noticed in Remy in this last week are subtle so I can’t be sure they’re attributable to the paroxetine. One is Remy’s tail returning upright when we go out walking. It doesn’t stay there for the entire walk, but it’s the first time in months I’ve seen his tail at high noon, rather than a droopy seven o’clock position, while walking together outside.

    I’ve also noticed Remy being calmer at bedtime when I dose him by 7:30 pm. If I give him this med later, he’s cranked up barking and otherwise carrying on at 11:00 at night. Don’t know whether that’s coincidence or related to the medication. Didn’t think to note that until just a few days ago.

    To track his behavior on meds I’ve been keeping a daily log. I don’t know whether or not this is the med for Remy, but these two small changes keep me hopeful that it can help him.

  6. Linda Peterson on

    My 13 month old toy poodle has become increasing anxious as the months have gone by. He became fear aggressive with unknown dogs, and would just have what appeared to be panic attacks for no reason.I have had many poodles, and have his mother and sister. I have never seen anything like the anxiety he constantly had. I read everything I could find on anxiety in dogs, and tried special training with a trainer experienced in treating this problem, foods ( turkey), Rescue Remedy, Composure, aromatherapy, Music- Through a Dog’s Ear- and massage. I am a counseslor by profession, and have worked with many clients on Prosac and other meds. So, I decided that Prosac would be the best meds to try. The change after a little over a month has been dramatic. He is now calm and seems happy. He has successfully interacted with other dogs in his dog class and at my pet sitters. He just seems to be enjoying life now. I would recommend this treatment for canine anxiety.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your story Linda. It is helpful for others to know about the options available to them, and to not be too afraid to take advantage of them.

  7. Caroline on

    Just wanted to say thank you for your posts and information on medication for fearful dogs. It meant that I went to the vet behaviourist with an open mind and we are now trying reconcile. For the less anxious of my two dogs I am certainly seeing a more relaxed and happy dog. Whilst the more anxious of the two is still pretty highly strung, I am now at least able to get his attention and give him a treat when we see dogs on walks something that was not possible a few weeks ago. Still a long way to go but after being stuck for a number of months with no ability to see a dog without going over his threshold, my anxious one is now at least able to walk past one of the regular dogs we see on the walk without losing the plot. Just have to convince him other dogs aren’t that scary.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad the info was helpful. It can take time to change emotional responses to things that scare us. Dogs find it challenging too. Good of you to be committed to it.

  8. Chris and Habi on

    Our experience with meds:

    Three months after adopting her from our local shelter, on the recommendation of our behavioral vet we started 3-year-old Habi on fluoxetine (generic Prozac). She was a screaming, lunging, uncontrollable neophobe who was described as ‘beyond the bell curve for a border collie’ by the trainer who sent us to the vet. It enabled her to THINK, and to respond to all the behavioral modification techniques that the vet also prescribed. Progress was painfully slow at first, but by the end of the first year she was manageable (though still quite a handful).

    Being very drug-shy, we weaned her off fluoxetine at that point (against the advice of our vet), hoping that we could continue on with just behavioral modifications. She plateaued, not losing ground, but not gaining, either, so at the end of that year we put her back on meds and saw immediate progress.

    Our vet pointed out, “Diabetics need insulin, because they’re unable to produce enough. Habi needs medication to help her produce serotonin, because she’s unable to produce enough. It’s not a failing in her (or in you) – it’s a reality”.

    Five years on, last month she was perfectly behaved, perfectly relaxed, and perfectly happy at our local humane society 2,000+ dog walk, and we just returned from a week-long road-trip-with-dogs to the Oregon coast that was totally fabulous. Daily fluoxetine is an integral part of the behavioral toolkit which has gotten us this far.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks so much for sharing this. My dog is also a “lifer” when it comes to meds and hopefully your post will help folks make the decision to at least try them with their dog.

  9. Leslie on

    When I picked up Mickey’s alprazolam at the pharmacy the other day, the new pharmacist took it upon himself to comment loudly several times about my dog being on a controlled substance. He followed that by yelling across the room “If you’d raised your dog right, he wouldn’t need Xanax!” During his tirade, he failed to notice that he’d filled the prescription incorrectly, giving me what would have been .5 mg per day when the Rx only calls for .25 per day. I don’t think it was intentional but he obviously didn’t think a dog’s medication was necessary or important. Guess who now has a complaint lodged against him?

  10. Milly on

    I still don’t think dogs should be on meds. We found our dog Mila in a garbage bin when she was a puppy. She was terrified of everyone for the first year, but over time has grown in confidence and is wonderful around people now. We overloaded on the attention and I think her love of that has helped overcome the fear. I am not saying those that give their dogs medication are bad pet owners, I am saying that it wouldn’t be an option for me though.

    • fearfuldogs on

      We all have to make choices for our dogs. I work with many dogs who would have suffered much more and longer had it not been for meds.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing. I apologize for the delay in approving your comment!

  11. Kate Rogers on

    my 11 year old fox terrier started to show signs of anxiety at night a year ago. same symptoms as if he was hearing thunder- shaking, panting, clawing. we’ve tried many drugs, thunder shirts, night light, country music. Clomicalm and valium work a bit but not enough. We are on to Prozac now but I’m not looking forward to the 4-6 week transition. I’m still unsure what his problem is, closest guess is separation anxiety except symptoms sometimes will appear when I’m home and he’s not comforted when he sees me. Any miracle suggestions?

  12. joyce jenkins on

    I too have an extremely fearful dog. After much research and deliberation with my vet, we decided it was worth trying. Probably the worst decision I have ever made. What was once a fearful dog, became a total lunatic dog. What I was attempting to lessen, became magnified. While this is not the norm, I want to warn people who are considering this medication. It is not without it’s dangers. It almost cost my dog his life. He suffered terribly while we were trying to get him off of this medication. It took an entire week, to get him detoxed, and we were considering putting an end to his suffering, fearing he had become permanently brain damaged. By day seven, he finally returned to himself. I am going to try behavior modification, to try and make him a more confident dog, and to help him with his fearfulness. I urge everyone to consider this experience before resorting to mind altering medications. They totally mess with their brain chemistry, and this can have devastating results. An occasional tranquilizer to help with fearful situations maybe a better alternative. I also suggest consulting an expert, who deals with these medications on a regular basis. While I adore my vet, and trust him implicitly, he simply was not experienced enough to prescribe this medication. I later came to find out he was started on much too high of a dose. While the dose was not out of the normal range, those that handle it more frequently informed me, that they always start on the low end of the scale. Long story short….consult an expert in behavior.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Great recommendation to see a vet behaviorist. They work with lots of owners to find a med protocol that provides their dog with the best results. Generally we don’t need to sedate dogs to get them through challenging situations. Best to talk to a vet about that as well.

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