Pets on Prozac: Dogs Take Medication to Help with Separation Anxiety

Albert, a 3-year-old coton de tulear, was diagnosed with extreme anxiety and prescribed Prozac. PlayABC News
WATCH Pets on Prozac: Dogs Take Meds to Help with Anxiety

Morgan Salinger rushes home at the end of her workday, hating to keep her partner waiting.

“I don’t want to push it,” she said. “I don’t want him to feel the way he does.”

It’s not so much that he’s jealous. He just misses her more than he should, and it kills her.

“There is a part of me that feels guilty,” she said. “I know that when he gets stressed he is very distraught and it’s hard to watch.”

Unconditional love isn’t always healthy, but Salinger accepts that about Hachi – her 2-year-old chow mix who suffers from the very real, very human, disorder of separation anxiety.

“Hachi digs at the floor...digs at the door...he bites the molding,” Salinger said. “And this is really all in an effort to get out of the apartment.”

A video she recorded after she left the dog alone for five hours showed Hachi in a full-blown panic attack, opening the refrigerator door and pulling items out.

“He’s pacing and now he’s looking in bags and he’s whining. So he’s clearly stressed,” Salinger said.

Like an anxious human, there’s a powerful medicine that can help Hachi. The melancholy mutt is on doggie anti-depressants, a sort of Prozac for puppies.

And Hachi isn’t alone. Nearly three million dogs in the United States are on anti-anxiety medication, according to a national pet owners survey from the American Pet Products Association.

Americans spent roughly $7 billion in pet medications in 2015, a 7 percent increase over 2014 in sales through veterinarians, brick-and-mortar retailers and online, according to an October 2015 report from Packaged Facts, a division of the consumer research firm, MarketResearch.com.

Laurel Braitman, the author of “Animal Madness,” said pets have deeper emotional lives than most of us give them credit for.

“I think it’s really safe to say that other animals, particularly dogs, can be happy and sad and anxious and fearful,” she said. “The problem is that, just like with us, we often turn to the drugs as the first line of treating the problem and I think that’s the mistake.”

Braitman, who gave a TED Talk on the subject, believes medication is often a last straw before owners give up the animal.

“I think the medication is often times a last ditch effort before bringing a dog or a cat to the pound and possibly euthanasia,” she said. “So if you use medication as a way of keeping an animal in a home so they don’t have to be re-homed or relinquished or put down, it’s a fantastic final option.”

Aside from behavioral medication, Salinger also takes Hachi to local trainer Erica Lieberman Wittenberg because in addition to the Prozac, Hachi needs “constant reinforcement and training,” she said.

Lieberman Wittenberg said medication can help but it doesn’t always solve anxiety problems in pets.

“It’s a scary thing. This is a brain altering medication and that’s a really scary thing,” Lieberman Wittenberg said. “We don’t want to change the rest of him. That’s the hard part.”

But for Anne-Marie Resor’s dog Albert, a 3-year-old coton de tulear, medication seems to greatly help his mental health. Without it, Resor says Albert becomes severely anxious when they leave their apartment near Central Park.

“When I take him for a walk he’s so nervous,” Resor said. “He looks from right to left, his tail is down...he’ll just stop and freeze and be trembling very strongly. It makes you want to give him a drink or something. It’s not his will against mine. It’s just that he is not well.”

After a series of failed behavior treatments, Albert was diagnosed with extreme anxiety and prescribed Prozac. But that diagnosis didn’t come cheap -- she estimates she’s spent upwards of $5,000 dealing with it.

“When the doctor recommended Prozac for Albert, I think I was probably a little relieved because I knew that Prozac really helped people and I knew that Albert really needed help,” Resor said.

After taking the medication, Resor said Albert, while still skittish, is now finally able to make it through a walk in Central Park. And Salinger also said she has seen a change for the better with Hachi.

“It’s tremendously helped,” Salinger said. “Prior to putting him on this medication he could not be alone more than two hours. It was unbearable for him. Once we put him on, he was slowly making more progress.”