How People Decide on Meds for Anxious Dogs

Personal experience affects attitudes on meds for anxious dogs, study shows.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Source: Couleur/Pixabay

Sometimes when pets have behaviour issues, such as fear or anxiety, their veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may prescribe psychoactive medication such as clomipramine (Clomicalm), selegeline (Anipryl), or SSRIs such as fluoxetine (Prozac). It turns out that dog owners’ attitudes to psychoactive medication and alternatives are shaped by their own experiences, according to research published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. The results also show that people think evidence of effectiveness is very important.

Veterinary behaviorist Karen van Haaften, one of the authors of the study, said:

“This study shows that behavior problems in dogs are very common, and that most dog owners are open to treatment plans that include the use of anxiety-reducing medications. Owners bring a variety of preconceptions to conversations about anxiety-reducing medications and alternatives, and are also affected by their own previous experience. The authors found it reassuring that dog owners considered scientific evidence of efficacy and recommendation by a veterinarian as the two most important decision-making factors."

The study asked 513 people who currently or previously had a dog for their views on psychoactive medications, nutritional and herbal supplements, pheromones, and cannabinoids for dogs. They were also asked about their dog’s behavior. The most common behavior issue was fear and anxiety (including fear of loud noises and separation anxiety), reported by 64% of dog owners. While this number may seem large, it is in line with other research that has found a large number of dogs have some kind of fear or anxiety (Salonen et al 2020).

Almost 60% of the participants said they knew that psychoactive medications and supplements were available for dogs, and most people said they would consider using them (only 17% would not consider it).

Interestingly, those who had themselves taken psychoactive medications for anxiety and depression at some point were much more likely to say they would be comfortable giving psychoactive medication to their dog, whether it was fast- or slow-acting medication. This was especially the case if their personal experiences with psychoactive medications had been positive. This group of people were also more likely to say that they would be comfortable giving their dog products containing pheromones or cannabinoids, but were not more comfortable with nutritional supplements or herbal supplements.

Similarly, people who had themselves taken herbal or nutritional supplements for depression or anxiety said they would be more comfortable giving these products to their dog. They also said they would be more comfortable giving products containing pheromones or cannabinoids. However they were no more or less likely to be comfortable giving their dog prescription medication.

Overall, people were more likely to say they were most comfortable with herbal or nutritional supplements. Women were more comfortable than men with the idea of giving their dog pheromones or nutritional supplements, but this was the only effect of gender.

Ninety percent of participants said it was important that there was scientific research that showed the effectiveness of the medication. This is best done via randomized controlled trials, and the authors of the study point out that there are some such trials on psychoactive medication in dogs. But even though participants expressed a belief that this kind of evidence of effectiveness was most important, this was not the type of approach they felt most comfortable with. This suggests it is important for veterinarians to tell people about the evidence on using psychoactive medications for dogs.

The scientists write that there are concerns about a lack of evidence for the efficacy or otherwise of herbal and nutritional supplements, pheromone and cannabinoid products, as well as potential issues with quality control and toxicity. Health Canada has not approved any CBD products for use in pets, and medical and non-medical cannabis products can be toxic to dogs.  

More than half of participants were concerned about sedation as a possible side-effect of prescription medication for dogs. Just under half were concerned about the possibility of addiction, and around a quarter were concerned that their dog’s personality might change. Concerns about potential side-effects were greater for slow-acting (i.e. long term) rather than fast-acting psychoactive medications.

Everyone who took part in the study reported having had at least one behavior problem with their dog. Only 6% had had a referral to see a veterinary behaviorist or animal behaviorist (such as a CAAB) who is not a vet for problems such as anxiety or aggression.

The scientists wrote that:

“Recommending safe but ineffective treatments can indirectly harm patients by causing delays in appropriate treatment, increasing owners’ frustration, and potentially raising the risk of pet relinquishment. Owners may also erroneously perceive they have ‘tried everything’ and resort to relinquishment or euthanasia prematurely. Therefore, veterinarians should strive to recommend the most effective options when treating behavior problems, and/or consider referring owners to a qualified behavior professional (such as a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior, or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist) if they feel unable or unqualified to treat the behavior problem themselves.”

These results show that people’s own experiences affect their beliefs about remedies for canine behavior problems, and they should help veterinarians talk to clients about psychoactive medication. If your pet has a change in behavior or you want to know if psychoactive medication might help with their behavior problem, see your vet.


van Haaften, K. A., Grigg, E. K., Kolus, C., Hart, L., & Kogan, L. R. (2020). A survey of dog owners’ perceptions on the use of psychoactive medications and alternatives for the treatment of canine behavior problems. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 35, 27-33.

Salonen, M., Sulkama, S., Mikkola, S., Puurunen, J., Hakanen, E., Tiira, K., Araujo, C., & Lohi, H. (2020). Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-11.