Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, February 27, 1998

Is your doggy in the dumps?

A 30-day dose of Prozac could be
the solution to bad behavior problems

By Tim Ryan


Koa was at the end of his leash. Whenever The Bus rushed down the Hawaii Kai street outside his home, the golden retriever's heart would race and he would bark, sometimes salivating uncontrollably. The 2-year-old purebred wouldn't settle down, running through the uncarpeted house, bumping into furniture and sliding on the wood floors. This would happen several times a day.

His owner, who requested anonymity, wasn't doing well, either.

"I'd put him in a small room -- the farthest one from the street -- but he would just scratch at the door and then the walls, frantically trying to get out," he said.

Fortunately for Koa -- and his owner -- a Honolulu veterinarian prescribed a tranquilizer while the owner started the dog on behavior-modification training.

Dog paw

Two decades ago student veterinarians received little or no training in pet behavior and the various drugs that can treat behavior such as obsessive scratching, licking, tail-chasing, separation anxiety, barking, even depression.

Now vets have learned about these doggy downers and have taken to prescribing Valium and Prozac.

"People don't come in and say, 'My dog's depressed,' " said Kahala vet Patrick Leadbeater. "Instead, they say their dog has eaten all its owner's shoes, ripped up the lawn, or licked itself raw.

"The problems come out through the behavior."

A mainland trend in increased use of prescription tranquilizers for dogs, hasn't hit Hawaii, Leadbeater says, and at his clinic it's a last resort.

"We had a case where a mixed-breed dog about 45 pounds had destroyed a house and yard," he said. "The (Aiea) owners were at their wit's end. It'd come down to whether to give the dog away or euthanize it."

Leadbeater prescribed Prozac for 30 days. The dog's behavior improved and the owner asked for an additional prescription.

Prozac -- unlike Valium -- modifies behavior but doesn't sedate. He'll prescribe Valium more frequently but for very specific reasons.

"It's a useful drug for dogs because it has a wide tolerance range and is very, very safe," he said. "We may give it to an older dog before it comes into the clinic because it gets real nervous or hyper. Or we give it to a dog after a major surgery to keep it calm for a few days. But we can't truly think of a reason to prescribe these type of drugs like a doctor would for a human."

Use of psychotropic drugs in animals is nothing new, but no figures are available on the frequency they are prescribed. "It's definitely gotten a lot more popular in the last 10 years," said Wayne Hunthausen, a Kansas veterinarian and past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

Maryland veterinarian Steven Melman reportedly was the first to treat dogs with Prozac -- in 1988 on a bichon frise named Chloe who kept chewing her tail.

Eli Lilly & Co. already had used its new anti-depressant, Prozac, on dogs as a part of its early research, so Melman decided to try it on Chloe. And it worked, saving the animal's tail.

Leadbeater said it's inappropriate to use anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs on animals that might have just a simple allergy, particularly when a drug like Prozac can cost the owner of a large dog as much as $100 per month.

Veterinarians first try to identify the problem, then treat it without medication.

If your dog chews and scratches at its skin hard enough to cause damage, he or she could be suffering from a "hot spot," also known as acute moist dermatitis, that can be caused by a single splinter, flea, tick, ear infection or impacted anal gland, Leadbeater said.

"It would be very rare to have a problem like that, take a diagnostic approach, then say you have no idea what to do other than continuous tranquilizing," Leadbeater. "A dog that chews its tail usually does so because of some form of anal-gland problem, or he has an allergy."

Tranquilizers can be prescribed to calm the animal for the three to four days it takes for a hot spot to heal, he said. "But tranquilizing in a case like this on a long-term basis would be a last resort."

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