Dog owner giving pet anxiety meds

Key takeaway

Many dogs will experience anxiety in some way, shape, or form in their lifetime, regardless of breed or age. However, if left unchecked, it can lead to many behavior problems, including aggression, compulsive behaviors, and destructive tendencies. One key way to support your dog and tackle their anxiety is with anxiety meds and behavior modification programs. While several types of anxiety medications can help manage your dog’s anxiety, the best one for your furry friend depends on their specific needs.

Living with an anxiety disorder is no walk in the park. From excessive whining whenever you leave the house to lunging and barking at other pets that pass by, it can be a frustrating and overwhelming experience for you and your pet. Not to mention that prolonged anxiety can also affect your dog’s overall health and lead to several health issues when left untreated. So, what can you do about their behavior? 

One fundamental way to treat severe dog anxiety disorders is with medication prescribed by a licensed veterinarian. If you’re considering seeking treatment for your furry friend, there are a few things that you should know. In this blog, we’ll cover the types of treatments available for canines with anxiety and the side effects that can arise with use. Read from start to finish to learn everything you need to know about using anxiety meds for dogs, or use the links below to jump to the sections that most interest you. 

Clinical Signs Of Anxiety In Dogs

Does your dog howl through the night when left in their crate? Do they destroy every pillow in sight whenever you leave them home alone? Do they tremble or shiver in new environments or around unfamiliar people or even at home? Well, your furry friend may have an anxiety disorder. Here are a few additional signs of dog anxiety1:  

  • Aggression
  • Urinating or defecating in the house
  • Drooling
  • Panting
  • Destructive behavior
  • Depression
  • Excessive barking
  • Pacing
  • Restlessness
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors

Keep in mind that while your dog may be exhibiting several of the behaviors above, the only way to diagnose anxiety is with the help of a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist, which is a veterinarian who completed several years of additional training in a residency.

Causes Of Anxiety In Dogs

Just like there are various medications for humans for specific health ailments, there are different types of anxiety medications for dogs. These medications typically target the root cause of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Aging-related anxiety: Older dogs may experience Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), leading to them experiencing confusion and fear. Up to 28% of dogs 11 years old experience at least one sign of CDS, while 68% of dogs 15 years old experience at least one sign of CDS.9
  • Situational-related anxiety: Dogs see the world differently than their human counterparts. Some dogs may experience anxiety related to a specific situation or environment. For example, they may have situational anxiety related to people, other dogs, or certain places.
  • Separation anxiety: Affecting approximately 14% of dogs2, dog separation anxiety occurs when canines are unable to be away from their owners.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder: Similar to people, if dogs experience anxiety in the absence of a true threat for a significant part of their day, for 3 weeks or longer, they may be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Dogs with generalized anxiety disorder exhibit constant or near constant indicators of anxiety and fear, regardless of context.10

Types Of Prescription Anxiety Meds For Dogs

Now that you know about the signs associated with different types of anxiety disorders, let’s take a look at how anxiety meds for dogs can help.

Calming Supplements

Veterinarians expect 25% improvement from calming supplements, which may include Solliquin, Anxitane, Zylkene, Calming Care, and pheromone products.

Medications

Veterinarians expect 50% improvement from medicinal intervention. Anxiety medications can be broken into two categories: those that create a steady state in the body and don’t wear off, and medications used for situational anxiety, which take effect quickly and don’t wear off.

Medications that create steady state in the body

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)

Tricyclic antidepressants are used for separation anxiety, situational anxiety, and other repetitive behaviors caused by stress. It can reduce anxiety symptoms by blocking the reuptake transporter, hindering the reabsorption of serotonin and dopamine into neurons.3

TCA drugs include clomipramine (Anafranil) and amitriptyline. Both of these can be administered to your dog orally via a tablet with food. Only one TCA drug is labeled for use in dogs: Clomicalm. All others are human antidepressants used off label for treatment in dogs; however, there are many studies in dogs to support their efficacy and safety.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used for generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and fears.4 SSRIs work by increasing your dog’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that modulates mood, cognition, reward, learning, memory. They block reabsorption of serotonin into the neurotransmitter, increasing the amount of serotonin available.5

SSRI drugs include paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft). SSRIs are often most effective when used alongside behavior modification programs to manage and treat anxiety in dogs effectively. SSRIs can also be given to dogs in a tablet, liquid, or capsule, depending on the specific type of drug prescribed. Reconcile is the only drug labeled for use in dogs, while others are off-label use of human drugs.

Medications that take effect quickly, then taper off

Gabapentin

While gabapentin is an anticonvulsant and neuropathic pain analgesic (pain reliever) drug, it can calm a dog’s nervous system, making it an excellent option for highly anxious canines. It’s theorized that gabapentin works by augmenting a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA, which acts like the brake pedal in the car, slowing down anxious neurotransmission.6

Brand names can include Aclonium, Equipax, Gabarone, Gantin, Gralise, Neurontin, Neurostil, and Progresse. Gabapentin is one of the primary drugs used by Dutch-affiliated vets and is often provided in conjunction with an SSRI. It’s very safe for dogs, with the most common side effect being sedation.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are generally used for anxiety triggered by predictable events, such as thunderstorms, visits to the vet, long car rides, and an owner leaving. This drug is given to dogs approximately 1 to 3 hours before an anxiety-inducing event since it can slow down functionality in the central nervous system and increase the production and effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).7

Per the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), benzodiazepines are scheduled drugs and have increased regulatory hurdles. This includes medications like Xanax, diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan)

Pet owner administering anti-anxiety meds to puppy

While several prescription medications can help pet owners manage their dog’s anxiety, medication is only part of the solution. We recommend pet parents follow up with their veterinarian; they can help decide if medication, a supplement, behavior modification, or a combination are indicated. A veterinarian will work with you to recommend an appropriate dog trainer. You can then work together as a team to develop a comprehensive behavior modification program that may include counter-conditioning and desensitization to stop excessive barking and other destructive behaviors.

However, not all trainers are created equal. When searching for the best trainer for your pet, make sure they specialize in anxiety issues and encourage positive reinforcement training. Otherwise, you risk worsening your pet’s behavior.

Side Effects Of Anxiety Meds For Dogs

The side effects canines experience due to anxiety medications vary from dog to dog and the type of medication. That said, here are a few possible side effects of anti-anxiety medication your furry friend could experience while taking anxiety meds:

Most common side effects

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Inappetance
  • Sedation
  • Agitation
  • Increased appetite
  • Drunken walking

Less common side effects

  • Lethargy
  • Heart rate irregularities
  • Urinary changes 
  • Reduced muscle control
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Weakness 

Rarely, dogs can experience an overdose of serotonin, but in most cases when this occurs in dogs it's because they had an overdose, like getting into their pet parents' meds accidentally. Serotonin syndrome symptoms8 to watch out for include:

  • Blindness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Diarrhea
  • High fever
  • Lack of coordination
  • Vomiting 
  • Paralysis
  • Seizures and death

Mild symptoms of serotonin syndrome can go away within 24 hours as the drug’s potency begins to wear off. If you suspect your dog may have serotonin syndrome, seek medical attention immediately, especially if severe symptoms are present or if symptoms are rapidly worsening. 

What causes adverse side effects of dog anxiety meds?

Every medication, including prescriptions for humans, can cause adverse side effects. Overall, side effects can occur because a dog’s body is simply not used to their new medication, or it may be that medication just isn’t a good fit for that pet; genetics can play a role in this. These side effects are typically not a cause for concern and will clear up over time as they adjust to the drugs, but it’s always best to check in with your vet to decide if your pet should continue taking it.

Side effects can also be caused by undiagnosed or pre-existing health conditions or giving the wrong dosage to your dog. For this reason, it’s vital to provide your veterinarian with as much information as possible regarding the health and condition of your pet. This is especially important during a pet telemedicine appointment where vets cannot see your pet in person. 

To minimize the likelihood of life-threatening or urgent complications, make sure to closely follow the dosage instructions on the packaging and administer according to your vet’s instructions. 

Dog owner administering anti-anxiety medication

Dog Anxiety Meds: Frequently Asked Questions

Dog anxiety medication can be tricky to understand. For that reason, we’ve provided answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding anxiety medication for canines below.

How long do anti-anxiety meds for dogs take to work?

Anxiety meds prescribed orally can take as little as 20 to 30 minutes to begin working, while others can take weeks and even months to determine whether they’re beneficial for your dog or not. We recommend closely monitoring your dog’s symptoms and following up with your vet if you’re concerned about the drug’s performance. 

Be aware that certain anti-anxiety meds, such as trazodone, gabapentin, and benzodiazepines, are short-acting drugs, meaning they won’t stay in your dog’s system for long. On the other hand, other types of anxiety medications will take 4-6 weeks to take effect. 

What are the symptoms of anxiety in dogs?

Anxiety in dogs can manifest in different ways, so it can be challenging to identify whether they have anxiety or another behavior disorder. That said, here are a few of the most common symptoms of anxiety in dogs to watch out for: 

  • Aggressiveness
  • Panting 
  • Pacing 
  • Excessive howling or barking 
  • Pacing 
  • Escape attempts 
  • Accidents in the home despite being house trained
  • Destruction

What is the best medication for anxiety in dogs?

The best anxiety meds for dogs ultimately depend on the specific needs and health of your pet. For example, is their stress rooted in separation anxiety, or do they only get anxious in strange environments? If you believe your dog is struggling with anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek help from a veterinarian that can determine the cause of your pet’s anxiety and develop a treatment plan.

Final Notes

While a few anxiety disorder symptoms can easily be misinterpreted as behaviors of a “bad” or untrained dog, the truth is that many destructive or annoying tendencies are often rooted in anxiety. And while it may be easier to ignore the problem or use a Bandaid solution, such as a muzzle or prong collar, doing so won’t solve the root of the problem and can make them worse.  

That said, it’s essential to work with a veterinary expert familiar with anxiety in dogs. A professional can help you effectively treat and manage your dog’s symptoms with behavior modification training and prescription medication. The type of anti-anxiety meds your pet takes will depend on the type of anxiety they’re suffering from—which can be easily diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian. 

At Dutch, we’re committed to helping your dog become as stress-free as possible by connecting you with a reliable vet who specializes in pet anxiety. By working with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, you’ll be able to assist your furry friend with anti-anxiety meds and training, allowing them to live a much more fulfilling life. Get started with Dutch today and learn how we can support you and your dog’s anxiety.

References

  1. Kriss, Randa. “Dog Anxiety: What Dog Owners Need to Know.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 7 Aug. 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/treating-dog-anxiety/.
  2. ---.“Dog Anxiety: What Dog Owners Need to Know.”
  3. Khan, Safdar A. “Tranquilizers, Antidepressants, Sleep Aids, and Anticonvulsants (Toxicity) - Toxicology.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 8 Oct. 2021, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/toxicities-from-human-drugs/tranquilizers,-antidepressants,-sleep-aids,-and-anticonvulsants-toxicity.
  4. Landsberg, Gary M., and Sagi Denenberg. “Behavioral Problems of Dogs.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/normal-social-behavior-and-behavioral-problems-of-domestic-animals/behavioral-problems-of-dogs.
  5. Mayo Clinic Staff. “The Most Commonly Prescribed Type of Antidepressant.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/ssris/art-20044825.
  6. Gabapentin and Its Use in Pain Management . West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, https://www.wsh.nhs.uk/CMS-Documents/Patient-leaflets/PainService/5312-1Gabapentinanditsuseinpainmanagement.pdf.
  7. “What Are Benzodiazepines?” Mind, Apr. 2021, https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/sleeping-pills-and-minor-tranquillisers/about-benzodiazepines/.
  8. Gollakner, Rania. “Trazodone.” VCA , VCA Hospitals, https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/trazodone.
  9. Neilson, Jacqueline C., et al. "Prevalence of behavioral changes associated with age-related cognitive impairment in dogs." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 218.11 (2001): 1787-1791.
  10. Crowell-Davis, Sharon L. "Generalized anxiety disorder." Compendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians 31 (2009): 427-430.