Prozac for Puppy? More American Pets Are Prescribed Psychiatric Drugs

PHOTO: Dr. Nicholas Dodman founded the Animal Behavior Center at Tufts University near Boston and strongly believes prescription medication can help save the lives of pets with behavioral problems.
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Psychiatric medications such as Prozac are being prescribed more often to man's best friend to help treat a variety of conditions and behaviors usually found in humans.

In the United States where people have left fortunes to their pets, spend extravagantly on their grooming, even buy them plane tickets, pet meds are flying off pharmacy shelves, from Anipryl, for sharper memory, to Zoloft to ward off anxiety.

Just like some owners, dogs, cats and other pets can also suffer from anxiety, depression and compulsive disorders. Last year, Americans spent nearly $7 billion dollars on pills for their pets and the sales growth is dramatic, up 35 percent in just four years, according to David Lummis, a senior pet market analyst for Packaged Facts.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a pioneer in treating mental health of animals, is a veterinary version of a psychiatrist and a leading advocate of mind-altering drugs. He founded the Animal Behavior Center at Tufts University near in North Grafton, Mass., where he has treated almost everything, including dogs who chase shadows or spin in dizzying circles, with the help of prescription medication.

"There's absolutely no doubt that psychiatric medicines that work on people also work on pets. I mean we've shown it over and over again, ad nauseum," he said.

Horses led the way to prescribing medicine for domestic animals. About 30 years ago, Dodman said he and a colleague discovered they could treat compulsive behaviors with medicine known to change human brain chemistry. Dodman called it his "eureka moment."

"I went, 'now I've found that thing that I want to hold on to and I want to do for the rest of my life,'" he said. "You can control animals' behavior."

And Dodman has seen a parade of troubled animals since opening his center. Owner Erin Reilly brought her dog Frisbee, a mixed breed, to the center because he compulsively chases his hind legs 10 to 12 times a day.

"We actually feel bad for him," said Reilly's husband Leigh Chinitz. "When we see him do it, it just looks like it can't be either good for him or very comfortable."

Dodman prescribed Frisbee Prozac and a medication often used for Alzheimer's patients. And Frisbee wasn't alone. Another dog, a German shepherd named Summer who suffers from anxiety, was prescribed three psychiatric medications.

"We've got a mood stabilizer and anti-anxiety medicine working together hopefully to make Summer calmer," Dodman explained.

A Springer spaniel named Dakota was brought to the center because he used to only attack men in his family, and suddenly started attacking women. Dodman suggested a new leash, a low-protein diet and Prozac.

"You'd be better off having Prozac in the background because it decreases aggression," he said.

Not all pets leave the veterinarian's office with a prescription. One problem pet was a cat named Doogie that relieved itself all over the house, and Dodman recommended the owners switch to unscented litter, which seemed to do the trick.

"I only use medicines if I think it will help," he said. "Some people will say, 'but I really wanted medicine,' and I say, 'your animal, your pet doesn't need it.'"

However, animal trainer Cesar Milan, better known as the "dog whisperer" on National Geographic's hit show, said he is skeptical of using psychiatric medicines on pets.

"Unfortunately, everybody is looking for the quick fix, for the 'I want to see dramatic change in my dog,'" he said. "Often it's the human that's obsessive and it's the dog that's just imitating the behavior."

In most cases, Milan claimed, exercise, proper diet and tough love -- showing your pet who's boss -- can cure psychological problems in pets.

"Rules, boundaries, limitations, understanding what their position in the family is, what is expected of them," he said. "My clients are Harvard graduates but they can't walk a Chihuahua."

But for two years the Chinitz-Reilly family who took in Frisbee, the spinning mutt, at 7 months old, said they have tried everything from professional training, discipline, long walks to wear him out and even yoga to calm the dog down.

"I'll take a breath in and inhale slowly the same way I would do in a yoga pose, and it really seems to almost transmit physically into his body and he calms down at the same time," said Erin Reilly.

But his zen state doesn't last and it's not long before Frisbee becomes "possessed" again. Milan admitted that in extreme cases, like Frisbee's, medicine can be a last resort.

Considering the other option pet owners consider is to give up their animals, Dodman insists that psychiatric medication can help save pets' lives. The Humane Society of the United States said more than four million American dogs and cats are put down each year.

"I think the goal of a veterinarian is to do the best thing for the animal," Dodman said. "I mean, whatever will help it to feel better and, truthfully, spare its life. So many are relinquished because of behavior problems."

Dodman's research with animals could also one day improve human health. His studies have already led to promising results for obsessive-compulsive disorder, Turret's syndrome and autism in people.

"We're very similar," he said. "I like to say we're all mammals in this together."

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