Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)
Elite Fear Free Certified Coach
I don’t want to give my pet behaviour medication; I feel bad for ‘drugging’ my pet!
Mental health conditions are a medical issue. Just as you would give pain killers for limping, antibiotics for an infection or insulin to a diabetic, there are conditions of the brain that require medication for it to function normally.
Some of the medications available are short acting: their onset is fast (0.5-2 hours) and their duration is short (up to 12 hours). Others are long acting, and require dosing for weeks before their effects in the brain translate to potential behavioural change. Sometimes we use additional medication just for certain difficult situations, on top of the daily medication regime.
Just as in the human world though, if the conditions don’t change, there will be no change to the condition. This means we need to do more than simply medicate our pets to see change in their behaviour. We need to support them by managing or changing the environment they interact with, and implement behaviour modification & training to give them the opportunity to display more socially-acceptable behaviours.
Why does my pet need behaviour medication?
Often medications are used to help moderate maladaptive or extreme levels of fear, anxiety or stress (FAS) in pets. FAS has a negative effect on the body, especially over a long period of time.
It isn’t healthy for your pet. Elevated stress hormone levels can suppress the immune system, change lab work results, and over the long term may even shorten your pet’s life (Landsberg et al., 2013).
FAS is facilitated through communication between the brain and the body; the brain detects a threat, triggers neural and hormonal cascades, and in a split second, the body is physically reacting.
Take an example of anything that might give you a fright; a jump-scare scene in a movie, a sudden loud noise, a near-miss in a car accident. What happens in your body? The heart rate elevates, the blood pressure goes up, the adrenaline is pumping. You go into ‘fight or flight’. However not everybody reacts the same. There are also the lesser known ‘freeze and fiddle’ reactions to threats. Neurotransmitters & receptors in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline help exaggerate or dampen these responses to a trigger, and this is influenced by genetics, environment and learning. A child that has only heard the sound of a balloon popping will react differently to an ex-army veteran if faced with a sudden, loud noise.
Our pets can, and do, experience panic attacks.
Some pets are constantly perceiving the world as a threatening place, even when it isn’t. This could be because they were born with different levels of neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain. Maybe their mother was under very stressful conditions while the pet was a foetus. Perhaps the pet has been exposed to vibration/shock collar therapy and learned to be fearful (yes, this can permanently change the chemicals & receptors in the brain! (Cuartas et al., 2021; K. L. Overall, 2018)).
What do behaviour medications do?
Behaviour medications are prescribed first and foremost to improve your pet’s quality of life. Period.
They achieve this by working in a number of different ways; behaviour medications might work at the level of the brain, altering receptor numbers or preventing destruction of neurotransmitters. Or they might work in the body to help reduce the sensitivity of the FAS response. There are products such as pheromones (Adaptil & Feliway Classic, Feliway Friends), diets (Royal Canin Calm & RelaxCare) and supplements (PAW by Blackmores Complete Calm chews and Zylkene) available on the market. Some products have undergone more rigorous testing and research than others; please discuss any and all behaviour products that you are using with your veterinarian as they can sometimes interact with medications and influence treatment outcomes.
Some mechanisms can be altered very quickly, others take a long time. How long your pet has been practicing the behavioural pathway will also have an impact on how easy or challenging it might be to change. Depending on where the medication functions and its effects determines their likelihood of working on certain conditions, as well as their potential side effects.
Side effects that impair your pet’s quality of life are not considered acceptable and together, we will work to find the right pharmacological support for your pet.
How do I get medication into my already stressed pet?
What is the point of a prescription if you cannot get it into your pet?
If your pet refuses their medication in a tasty treat or resents having a tablet/capsule pushed down their throat (Let’s face it, that’s fair), depending on the medication type and your budget, medications can be compounded into flavoured liquids, gels, and sometimes even transdermal ointments.
While compounding medications is convenient, they are usually more expensive, take longer to get, and depending on the pharmacy, can sometimes be less reliable. It is important that these things are taken into consideration when thinking about compounded versus conventional medication (K. Overall, 2013).
Please don’t hesitate to talk to our team about any troubles medicating your pet.
 A transdermal ointment is where the medication is formulated into a cream that is absorbed through the skin for dosing i.e. Mittens gets her fluoxetine dose through 0.1ml of special ointment rubbed in her ear once daily
Cuartas, J., Weissman, D. G., Sheridan, M. A., Lengua, L., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2021). Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children. Child Development, 92(3), 821–832. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13565
Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (2013). Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat (3rd Editio). Elsevier Inc.
Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats - E-Book by Karen Overall – Books on Google Play. Elsevier Health Sciences.
Overall, K. L. (2018). Beware the misdirection offense: the truth about shock, aversives and punishment. In Journal of Veterinary Behavior (Vol. 25, pp. iv–vi). Elsevier USA. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.04.005