From Fireworks to Boredom: Why Some Pets Take Prozac

Fireworks and boredom can trigger anxiety and depression, vets say.

ByLiz Neporent
June 30, 2014, 2:35 PM

June 30, 2014— -- Have you been feeling tired and listless lately? Has life got you down? Are you a dog?

It seems we humans aren’t the only ones who get sad, anxious and depressed. An estimated 2.8 million dog owners give their dogs calming and anxiety medicines like Prozac each year, according to the National Pet Owners Survey of the American Pet Products Association.

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Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a staff veterinarian at Animal Medical Center in New York City said that Prozac, an antidepressant often prescribed for humans, is also frequently given to dogs to treat canine separation anxiety.

“We’re not talking a pet who gets a little upset when you leave the house,” Hohenhaus said. “We’re talking about a dog who goes nuts.”

Hohenhaus said dogs with severe separation anxiety are the ones neighbors complain about because they bark all day long or destroy the house in their owner’s absence. She’s had pooch patients so bummed out over being left alone that they’ve broken off all their toenails trying to scratch through the door.

Canines that are overly aggressive, shy or fearful might also be prescribed antidepressants to help mellow them out, Hohenhaus said. She said with the fourth of July coming up, many owners will dose up a pup that gets freaked out by fireworks.

Until recently, Eli Lilly sold doggie Prozac under the name Reconcile. But with the human version so inexpensive and readily available, most owners get a prescription for their dogs and fill it at their local pharmacy, said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, the director of the animal behavior clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

“We often use other human versions of antidepressants such as Xanax and Valium to treat dogs, too,” he said, adding that many antidepressant drugs work by increasing the brain’s output of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Dogs aren't the only pets that sometimes need chill pills, Dodman said. Felines that chronically spritz urine outside the litter box or stalk and attack their human caregivers are possible candidates for antidepressants. So are birds that engage in feather pulling and picking, Dodman said, adding that all of these behaviors signal stress and depression in animals.

Nor does depression seem to be confined to house pets. Dodman said he’s treated a horse or two with the barnyard blues, a few sad sack sheep and one especially melancholy pig that couldn’t stop grinding its teeth. He said he’s consulted with zoos to recommend antidepressants for gloomy gorillas, obsessively pacing polar bears and woeful wildebeests.

Before any animal pops a pill for depression, Hohenhaus recommends first addressing any underlying physical problem that might be causing the undesirable behavior. And then if there are no health issues, she recommends behavior modification, like hiring a midday dog walker or trying a different feeding schedule.

“Only when we’ve looked at everything else do we turn to antidepressants,” she said, pointing out that the drugs tend to have few side effects in animals but can take weeks to kick in.

As for making sure your furry friend is happy to begin with, Dodman said it’s not always possible.

“Any species that lives in a concrete jungle is susceptible to the emotional distress of depression, boredom and anxiety, including dogs and including us” he said. “We’d all probably be happier if we were farmers.”

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