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Medications Used to Treat Anxiety in Dogs

Posted by Dr. Elizabeth Racine on

Medications Used to Treat Anxiety in Dogs

Many families are all too familiar with the anxious dog and how disruptive canine anxiety can be.  An anxious dog can be a lot for any family to handle, so it is no surprise that many pet owners seek medication to address their dog’s anxiety.  However, before reaching for the pill bottle, it’s essential to understand the benefits and limits of medication for dogs with anxiety.

Symptoms of Canine Anxiety

Dogs with anxiety can exhibit a wide range of symptoms.  Sometimes the symptoms are subtle and may be dismissed as simply “bad behavior”.  However, most dogs with anxiety are not misbehaving on purpose – they are acting in response to the stress and fear they are experiencing.  Common signs of anxiety in dogs include:

  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Hiding
  • Hypervigilance
  • Excessive barking
  • Trembling
  • Destructive behavior
  • House soiling
  • Aggression
  • Attempting to escape

If your dog experiences these symptoms, the first step is to visit your veterinarian.  Your veterinarian will take a detailed history and will perform a full physical examination to rule out any underlying medical conditions that could contribute to your dog’s behavior.  If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with anxiety, there are several medications that may be prescribed to help.

Situational Medications for Dog Anxiety

Some dogs are happy and confident the majority of the time, but get frightened by specific events, such as thunderstorms or fireworks.  These dogs typically do not need to take medication every day or long term, but they could benefit from something to “take the edge off” during these stressful events.  Medications used on a situational or as-needed basis typically have anti-anxiety effects and a mild sedative effect, which helps your dog relax during the stressful event.  Commonly used medications for situational anxiety include Trazodone, Gabapentin, Alprazolam (Xanax), Clonidine, and Dexmedetomidine (Sileo).  These medications are typically administered 60-90 minutes before the stressful event and may need to be administered again for longer events – like the 4th of July.

Although medication is helpful for many dogs, the best responses are seen when medication is combined with other management strategies to reduce your dog’s stress and anxiety.  Strategies such as reducing exposure to the trigger – such as putting your dog in a quiet room or playing relaxing music to cover the noise of a storm – and using positive reinforcement tools like treats and puzzle toys to keep your dog occupied can help.  Your veterinarian or a positive reinforcement dog trainer can help you identify the best tools to use in conjunction with medication to alleviate your dog’s anxiety.

Long Term Medications for Anxiety

Some dogs don’t just get anxious occasionally – they’re anxious all the time.  These dogs may be fearful in everyday situations or exhibit constant hypervigilance.  Separation anxiety – in which your dog becomes anxious or even destructive when left alone – is a common scenario for chronically anxious dogs, and is often the reason why they are brought to the veterinary clinic.  In cases of chronic anxiety such as these, a daily medication for canine anxiety may be necessary.  Medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac), clomipramine, sertaline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil) are commonly used daily medications for anxiety.  These medications may take several weeks or even months to reach their peak effect, so your dog may be given some short-term medications such as those listed above to help alleviate symptoms in the meantime.  As with any long term medication, there is the potential for side effects, so it’s important to follow dosing instructions carefully and see your veterinarian for regular follow-ups.

In dogs with chronic anxiety, behavior modification training is essential to address the underlying fears that are contributing to the problem.  Just like children, dogs have a hard time learning new things when they’re frightened and stressed.  Anti-anxiety medications can help make training more successful by allowing your dog to relax and learn more readily.  Working with a board certified veterinary behaviorist or in combination with your veterinarian and a positive reinforcement dog trainer is the best option to incorporate both medication and training into your dog’s treatment plan.  In some cases, your dog may eventually be weaned off of the medication once he has overcome his fears through positive reinforcement training!

Alternative Treatments for Calming a Dog

For dogs with mild anxiety, calming supplements can be useful to reduce symptoms and help your dog relax.  Calming supplements may also be used alongside other medications for canine anxiety, but you should talk to your veterinarian prior to starting any new supplement or treatment.    

Commonly used supplements for canine anxiety include Zylkene, Solloquin, and Purina Calming Care, among others.  These supplements are typically available through your veterinarian or may be purchased over the counter.  Like long term anxiety medications, many calming supplements must be given daily for several weeks before achieving peak effect.  Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and choose a product that is best suited to your dog’s needs.

Many pet owners also report improvement in anxiety symptoms when using CBD oil for dogs.  Unfortunately, to date there has been very little research on the use of CBD oil in dogs, particularly for behavioral concerns like anxiety.  CBD oil may be beneficial for anxiety, but further investigation is needed to determine its efficacy and establish the best dosages and treatment protocols for this condition.

Medication Isn’t A Cure!

Ultimately, it is important for pet owners to recognize that medication alone is not a cure for canine anxiety.  Medication and supplements can help alleviate the symptoms of your dog’s anxiety, but they won’t fix the underlying problem.  To address canine anxiety and achieve the best outcomes, behavior modification training must be included as part of the treatment plan.  This can be time consuming for many families, but the results and the improved quality of life for your dog will be well worth the effort!  Before starting your dog on medications or supplements, consult your veterinarian to find the best combination of treatments to address your dog’s anxiety.

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