As a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, my specialty is working with the tough behavior cases. Dogs that have been through multiple trainers and training plans; dogs that bite, that shake and hide under the couch, that simply don’t deal well with day-to-day life.
So it’s no surprise that a lot of my clients have dogs on so-called “Puppy Prozac.”
But how do you decide if your dog needs Puppy Prozac? Should we even be giving behavioral medications to our pets? Is this all some sort of “Real Housewives” craziness?
I’m going to be very, very clear here on a few things:
- I think that behavioral medications are an important part of behavior change plans for a lot of dogs.
- I am not a veterinarian and therefore cannot diagnose or prescribe any medications.
- This article is a guide to getting a discussion started with your vet. It’s a starting point, not the whole picture.
So What Is Puppy Prozac?
The problem with a term like “Puppy Prozac” is that it’s not very specific. It may mean literal Prozac (Fluoxetine) – which is commonly used for highly fearful and anxious dogs. Or it may refer to a wide variety of other behavioral medications commonly used for dogs.
Here are a few of the common types of behavioral medications available for dogs:
- GABA Analogs, such as Gabapentin. These drugs can treat seizures, pain, and anxiety.
- How they work: They mimic the neurotransmitter GABA, which reduces tension in the body.
- Notes: Gabapentin is often given in conjunction with Trazodone.
- Alpha-2 Agonists, such as Sileo and Clonidine. These drugs help treat noise phobias (Sileo is FDA approved for this) and separation anxiety.
- How they work: These drugs block norepinephrine, which causes feelings of panic.
- Notes: Sileo is given as-needed before noise events.
- Serotonin Antagonist Reuptake Inhibitor (SARI) and Serotonin Agonists, such as Trazodone and Busiprone. These drugs can be used for fear, phobias, separation anxiety (Trazodone), and aggression (Busiprone).
- How they work: These drugs change the serotonin levels in the brain.
- Notes: They’re often taken along with SSRIs or TCAs. Busiprone is an ongoing drug while Trazodone can be used either ongoing or as-needed.
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI), such as Fluoxetine. They’re used on an ongoing basis for panic disorders, anxiety, separation anxiety, and compulsive disorders.
- How they work: SSRIs work by stopping the brain from reuptaking serotonin, meaning there’s more of this feel-good neurotransmitter available in the brain.
- Notes: SRIs can make aggression worse, so work closely with your vet if that’s a concern. There are other drugs in this class, but Fluoxetine is by far the most common for dogs. SSRIs generally shouldn’t be used in conjunction with MAOIs.
- Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOI) like Selegiline. Used for Cushing’s Diseases and Canine Cognitive Disfunction.
- How they work: They’re broadly similar to TCAs in that they increase serotonin and reduce norepenephrine.
- Notes: Don’t use with SSRIs, Tramodol, or TCAs, because the combination of the two can cause unhealthy rises in serotonin levels.
- Benzodiazepines, such as Diazepam and Alprazolam. Used mostly for anti-anxiety.
- How they work: They both likely work by promoting GABA in the brain, which reduces the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain.
- Notes: “Benzos” are essentially sedatives. You must give them before your dog is upset, which makes them tricky to use for unpredictable fears or phobias (but may help for vet visits, thunderstorms, or other predictable events). They are generally used as short-term or as-needed drugs. They also can lower your dog’s inhibitions, so they may be a bad idea if your dog is aggressive.
- Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs), such as Ampitriptyline and Clomipramine. Used for separation anxiety, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, and depressive behaviors.
- How they work: They increase serotonin in the brain and reduce norepenephrine.
- Notes: Each TCA is different, and there are a lot out there. It’s not uncommon for dogs to react very differently from one TCA to another!
- Non-Prescriptions options like probiotics, pheremones, pain management, diet changes, and more. These aren’t usually referred to as Puppy Prozac, but they certainly can be part of a good treatment plan!
- There’s a lot of evidence for probiotics helping with the gut-brain connection.
- A HUGE proportion of dogs with behavior problems have undiagnosed pain or other medical concerns. Dr. E’lise Christiansen suggests treating for pain to help rule that out as an issue because dogs are SO good at hiding it.
- Diet changes can also help – a rumbly tummy or itchy skin from diet issues can make dog behavior problems much worse.
- Pheromones other options like CBD can be helpful in many cases, though there’s generally less data behind these approaches.
- Drugs to be cautious of, such as Acepromazine, Benadryl, and sedatives. There’s a big difference between sedating or immobilizing a dog and actually helping her feel better.
- Many people on the internet will suggest giving your dog Benadryl to knock him out; but being groggy will only help YOU handle your dog, not help your dog FEEL less scared.
- Acepromazine used to be commonly prescribed by vets, but has fallen out of favor due to a long list of scary side effects – including making aggression worse. You might want to get a second opinion if your vet suggests Ace and nothing else for your dog.
The point is, when someone says “Puppy Prozac,” you really don’t know what they’re talking about yet! There are SO MANY drugs that can be prescribed to dogs for behavioral medications.
It’s also important to note that because there are so many options, you shouldn’t get discouraged if you’ve tried some meds and it’s not helping or if your dog is showing adverse side effects. A good vet behaviorist (my favorites are Dr. Pachel and Behavior Vets Colorado/NYC) will be able to work with you to make a plan that works better. It might mean adjusting dose, changing med type within a group, or switching groups entirely.
Does My Dog Need Puppy Prozac?
There are some broad questions I ask myself as a Behavior Consultant before asking a client to talk to their vet about behavioral medications.
Your dog may benefit from behavioral medications if:
- The behavior problem you’re experiencing is bothering your dog, not just you. If your dog is distressed or behaving aggressively, she’s not happy! This is the first red flag that behavior meds might be helpful. Honestly, a huge proportion of my clients automatically fall into this category because of my specialty. Separation anxiety, fear/phobias, compulsive behaviors light paw licking or light-chasing, and aggression are all problems that fall into this category.
- However, if your dog jumps on guests, pulls on leash, steals food, or chews on the furniture, this is more of a training problem. I’m far less likely to suggest talking to your vet for these issues because they’re less likely to be rooted in a chemical imbalance in the brain!
- The dogs’s quality of life is hurt by the behavior concerns. This kind of ties into the point above, but is a bit more severe. Your dog can be terrified of being left alone and still live a great life if you’re very careful (and lucky) with your lifestyle. Frankly, however, there are cases where NOT giving your dog behavioral medications could be called cruel and neglectful.
- Let’s look at Madge, my old foster dog. She was terrified of being left alone and barked and howled nonstop. But she also literally pooped on herself if I tried to touch her. I couldn’t walk her, couldn’t touch her, couldn’t LOOK at her. She was given a few different medications and with careful behavior modification, has improved a TON. Not putting her on medications would have been cruel given the amount of stress she was in on a daily basis.
- You’ve tried a good behavior change plan and aren’t seeing improvement. I often speak to clients where they’re doing everything right – exercise, enrichment, counterconditioning, lots of food rewards and comfort and safety for the dog. Sure, there are some changes to be made around the edges. But basically, these clients are doing everything right! In those cases, we might need some medication to nudge the dog towards more success.
- Of course, we can expect progress to be slow in many cases – but we should be seeing SOME improvement! If not, let’s help the process along with meds rather than prolonging your dog’s suffering.
- It can be hard to separate “trying training” from a good behavior modification plan. Sometimes a client thinks they’ve tried a lot of things, when unfortunately they were being led down a bad path by a crappy trainer. For example, I’ve had clients with aggressive dogs whose trainers told them to teach the dogs to sit around other dogs; but the dog kept behaving aggressively. That’s because the plan missed the entire point that the dog was upset about other dogs! You’ve got to treat the emotion as well as the behavior. If you’re not sure if your training plan is sound or not, reach out to Journey Dog Training and we’ll help you troubleshoot!
- The things that upset your dog are frequent and/or unavoidable and/or hard to predict. It’s simply not fair to expect your dog to live in a world that’s constantly upsetting her; and it’s not fair to you to try and avoid/predict things all the time. Neither one of you is set up for success; behavior medications are a smart consideration here.
- Your dog’s recovery after being upset is slow. A slow recovery time (more than a few seconds in most cases or minutes in the case of something big) is not a good sign. Behavior medications are a good consideration in these cases.
Your dog doesn’t need to check all of these boxes to qualify for behavioral medications; one alone may be enough to talk to your vet!
Will Puppy Prozac Sedate My Dog?
A properly selected and properly behavior medication should not turn your dog into a zombie. What you should see is that your dog is more relaxed around the things that upset her. Her energy level and personality should generally stay the same.
However, you may notice that your dog shadows you less, sleeps more deeply, or even sleeps a bit more because she’s less hypervigilant. She feels relaxed enough to “turn off,” and that’s a good thing!
So how do you tell the difference between lethargy/sedation and good rest? See if your dog is still interested in the things she loves.
If she doesn’t want to get up for a walk when normally that’s something she loves, that’s more similar to lethargy than to good rest. But if she wakes up, stretches, and is ready to go, that sounds like good rest to me.
Of course, all medications can have side effects. You’ll have to work closely with your vet to ensure that you’re both comfortable with the tradeoffs you’re experiencing.
How Do I Get My Dog on Behavior Medication?
All vets can prescribe behavior medications. They have the power to do so, and they’re the only ones who can.
While many behavior consultants (like myself) know quite a bit about behavior meds, we can’t prescribe and shouldn’t even suggest a specific drug for a specific case. That’s because we lack the thousands of hours of education needed to understand drug interactions, side effects, and much more! If I name a drug to a client and then the vet disagrees; I’ve accidentally set us all up for frustration and distrust. So it’s better if I just point my clients towards a vet I trust, hand off my notes on the case, and we all stay in our lanes in this 3-way relationship.
Part of the struggle is that while all vets can prescribe behavior medications, not all vets are comfortable with behavior! They don’t take much behavior coursework in school and many vets specialize in other areas – general practice, sports medicine, surgery, oncology, and so on.
It’s generally best to work with a vet who either:
- Is a veterinary behaviorist. This is the most intense path for a vet to work with behavior cases; they go to extra internships and a residency for the title, as well as conducting primary research and take an exam. These folks REALLY know their stuff. Most will work with you over video chat while you are in your vet’s office! You end up paying for both office visits, but this allows you to work with the best in the world from wherever you are. Again, my favorites are the Animal Behavior Clinic and Behavior Vets CO/NYC. Check out the full of American Vet Behaviorists here.
- Has a special interest in behavior.Check the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior for a list of vets who are especially interested in behavior. They also must apply for membership, but they didn’t necessarily complete the internships and paper-writing and exam needed to be a vet behaviorist (above). It might be harder to just find a local vet who’s interested in or good with behavior cases – this is where good old word-of-mouth is important. Trainers, behavior consultants, and even vets nearby may be able to help.
While your normal go-to vet may be perfectly fine for helping you and your dog create a behavior med plan, there’s no shame in looking for a specialist. It’s not your vet’s fault that they can’t possibly know everything.
If you want to talk to your primary vet first, that can be helpful. Try to document exactly what you have tried so far (and what the issue is) to help your vet understand which interventions may be best.
So once you’ve found a vet to work with, ask your primary vet’s office to send over records and ask your trainer to do the same. Schedule an appointment just for behavior concerns – don’t try to squish it in with annual vaccinations.
Be sure to be ready to answer questions like:
- What sets your dog off?
- How often does it happen?
- What does your dog actually do when upset?
- How long does it take for your dog to recover?
- What have you tried so far? (be detailed here)
- What sort of exercise and enrichment is your dog getting every day?
There is still a stigma associated with medicating dogs in many cases. I’ve been met with dubious scoffs when I mention the idea of medication for an anxious dog. However, many dogs with severe behavior issues have underlying brain chemistry abnormalities that can be helped with medication.
You may also want to ask your vet the following questions during the appointment:
- Does the drug have any breed-specific contraindications?
- As an example, many Aussies and Collies carry the MDR1-1 gene. These dogs can have fatal reactions for certain drugs. Boxers have particularly dangerous reactions to Acepromazine. You may want to consider a dog DNA test like Embark, which can test for the MRD1 gene, among running other medical tests.
- Does the drug have side effects I need to monitor for?
- Does the drug require dietary concerns?
- Is there a chance of overdose? If so, at what level?
- Does the drug require a certain period of time to take effect?
- If I need to stop the medication, do I have to wean my dog off of it slowly, or can my dog go cold turkey?
- Has the drug been used successfully for this problem before?
- What are the costs associated with this drug, as far as both the drug itself and any extra bloodwork?
Talking to a vet who is at least interested in and experienced with behavior will really set you and your pup up for success!
Will Puppy Prozac Fix All My Problems?
To be short, no. Even the best medication plan in the world will still involve some behavior modification plan!
So once you’ve got a prescription in hand, it’s still time to roll up your sleeves and get to work training your dog.
While medications may increase the serotonin available to your dog’s brain, they won’t actually help your dog learn to react differently to things that upset him unless you teach him!
That’s where we can come in. If you’d like help from the Journey Dog Training team on your behavior concerns, we’re here for you. Otherwise, check out IAABC.org or CPDT.org to find a great behavior consultant local to you.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.