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MEDICATIONS USED FOR TREATING DOG AGGRESSION
Medications may be prescribed by a veterinary behaviorist for treating dog aggression in conjunction with behavior modification. While it’s not a quick fix, if your dog needs medication, the sooner they can be prescribed the better for your dog chances of improvement.
Common Behavioural Medications Used for Treating Dog Aggression
Each medication has a slightly different effect on the brain. Many are thought to work by blocking or stimulating the release of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters act as chemical messengers allowing brain cells to communicate with each other.
However, more recently, new research is exploring whether the benefits may actually be a result of neurogenesis, which is the creation of specialized brain cells, known as neurons. These new theories are quite exciting since exercise, environmental enrichment and novelty have also been linked to the creation of new neurons.
The underlying cause and the presenting symptoms of your dog’s disorder will guide a veterinary behaviorist to figure out which medication is best to try with the right treatment methods.
Here are some of the more common medications prescribed for treating dog aggression:
- Fluoxetine (Known as Prozac® in human form, Reconcile® for dogs)
- Sertraline (Zoloft®)
- Amitriptyline HC1 (Elavil®)
- Clomipramine (Anafranil®, Clomicalm®) – more used for anxiety and compulsive disorders
- Buspirone (BuSpar®)
- Propranolol (Inderol®, Betachron®, Intensol®)
- Other non-prescribed therapeutic aids shown to improve dog aggression. These include low risk options such as anxiety blankets and calming music to supplements that may help reduce stress or anxiety, to supplements that may have similar effects to medication. Note, it is a mistake to assume because something is natural that it will not have a drug like effect.
Fluoxetine and Sertraline are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and Amitriptyline and Clomipramine are tricyclics (TCAs). These classifications are based on how they appears to work in the brain. They may be used on their own or in combination with one another. SSRIs are more commonly prescribed than TCA because they tend to be more easily tolerated. Most troubling side effects are experienced as the body gets used to the medication or as the medication is weaned off.
Fluoxetine and Clomipramine are now licensed in the United States and Canada for the treatment of separation anxiety, but can also be prescribed for some forms of dog aggression. Fluoxetine has been effective with many dogs, particularly those that have an impulse control element such as owner directed aggression. When a medication is defined as “extra-label”, this means that the medication is used for other reasons than what the manufacturer states. This is particularly common in veterinary medicine as many medications that animals need have only been registered for human use.
Buspirone is in its own classification and is generally well-tolerated and is used as a non-sedating anti-anxiety drug and may be used for more mild forms of anxiety. It may also be combined with other classes of medications.
Propranol works differently by reducing the physiological affects of fear. For example, when faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the heart rate and blood pressure normally rise. The affects alone can increase anxiety in humans. By reducing these affects, some people are able to better manage the anxious situation. It has seen mixed results in treating aggression.
There are also other therapeutic aids to improve dog aggression some more effective than others.
The Problem with Sedatives
Sedatives such as Phenothiazines are often prescribed to manage fear or pain aggression by minimizing the behavioral response and altering the sense of reality in the brain. Given that anxiety is often at the root of aggression, you might think that a sedative might help. Common medications like Acepromazine (“Ace” or “Promace” are particularly common, but unfortunately, they are a bad choice for aggression.
Dr. Gary Landsberg states that “phenothiazines such as acepromazine are sedatives but do not reduce anxiety.“ Dr. Jason Nicholas, describes Acepromazine as a “chemical straightjacket” lowering the behavioral response, but making them unable to move or demonstrate the signs of fear and anxiety they are actually experiencing. He also adds that it increases their noise sensitivity which is not good for aggressive dogs who are already stressed.
“Phenothiazines such as acepromazine are sedatives but do not reduce anxiety.” – Dr Gary Landsberg, Vetinary Behaviorist
SSRI medications are not sedatives. They don’t scramble the dog’s sense of reality. However, the side effects of ramping on or off the medication may cause temporary lethargy. In most cases these side effects go away. In some cases, dogs who have been high energy due to anxiety may seem “sedated”on SSRIs to their owners when in actual fact they are finally acting normally.
Can Medication Used to Treat Aggression Make Aggression Worse?
Any medication that treats anxiety and fear may also paradoxically disinhibit aggression. That means that a dog being treated for fear may be less afraid to act aggressively depending on the nature of his or her problems. Benzodiazepines in particular are not recommended for treating aggression for this fact alone.
A skilled veterinary behaviorist will consider and inform you of all the risk factors. It is important then to understand that regardless of any medications, a treatment plan still needs to address the learning component in dog aggression. Dogs tend to respond the way they have done in the past far more than humans do. A systematic re-training/ re-learning program such as the one we outline in our e-book, is necessary to change your dog’s behavior. A vet should be providing you with one (or refer you to a professional they have vetted to work with you) if they are prescribing medication for aggression.
Myth or Reality?
There are a lot of misconceptions about “drugs” or medication used to help dog aggression. Here is the reality about medications prescribed to dogs to help with aggressive behavior.
- Medications don’t directly treat dog aggression. They are prescribed to treat an underlying condition that may be influencing the aggression.
- If your dog doesn’t need them, (i.e. if there is no biological need) the medicine will not work.
- If your dog needs medication, it will allow your dog to be calmer and less fearful so your dog will be in a better position to learn
- Medicine for dog aggression rarely eliminates aggression symptoms without other treatment methods such as behavior modification.
- Medications for dog aggression are not a quick fix.
- Medications used specifically for dog aggression don’t change your dog’s personality.
- Medications that are appropriate for dog aggression don’t sedate your dog or make your dog dopey, although the side effects can make them lethargic and tired initially. These effects typically disappear after a few weeks. If the effects don’t go away, discontinuing and resuming treatment at a lower dose is often recommended.
- Medication with SSRIs and TCAs for dog aggression does not cause addictions. Benzodiazepines which are sometimes used for anxiety can be addictive, but these should not be used to treat dog aggression.
Regardless of any medications, a treatment plan still needs to address the learning component in dog aggression. A systematic retraining, or relearning program such as the one we outline in our e-book, is necessary to change your dog’s behavior. The medications often need some time before the full effect will have an impact (1-4 weeks, but often up to two months) and may need to be prescribed for a minimum of 6 months depending on the situation.
The medications often need to be “ramped” up or down when starting and finishing the medication. This means they will start on a small dose and slowly start to increase the amount over time that the dog takes, or when coming off the medication, reduce the dose or the frequency it’s taken. Side effects are more likely during the ramping on and off phases.
Tests prior to putting the dog on medication are a good idea to establish a baseline. That way if a medication is impacting the dog in some other way, there is something to compare the results to prior to the dog being on the medication. Which medication(s) and how much depends on a number of factors including the problems and symptoms presented (this may include more than just aggression), genetics, and the dog’s physiological make up.
The dog needs to be carefully monitored and sometimes the dose will need to be changed or the medication changed altogether. In some cases more than one medication may be prescribed.
Pills: Photo by Demian Spinetta
Dog Nurse: Photo by Sam Lion
The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs E-book