Training – The use of psychotropic drugs to modify canine behaviour

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


This is a very difficult subject and one on which very little research has been done and, as a result, it subject to even more controversy.

The facts are these: in the mater of behaviour modification there has been an increasingly reliance on what are called psychotropic drugs. The word means ‘having an altering effect on perception, emotion, or behaviour’ and they have been developed to help in the treatment of people who have a range of physiological and psychological problems that place their general behaviour outside what society normally expects. These behaviours range from serious mental disorders to generalised depressions and anxieties.There is a great deal of controversy about the use of these drugs. They can be helpful, certainly but most have significant side effects and because they act on the delicate chemistry of the brain their effect can be unpredictable.Many psychologists and psychiatrists believe that for most minor conditions it is better to ‘work through the pain’ than take tablets, which merely suppress the condition for, when you stop taking the medication, the condition remains.

There are drugs for fear related behaviours (agoraphobia for instance), the control of anxiety and aggression and for mood stabilisation. They include buspirone, diazepam, acepromozine (ACP), lithium, carbamazepine, clomipramine and fluoxetine. They all have their place in the doctors and psychiatrists armoury but the time has long gone when doctors would dole out Vallium on demand for it was soon clear that their patients became psychologically addicted to them and their behaviour, although more stable, was still unpredictable. Nowadays, such drugs come with major health and welfare warnings for they affect the workings of the heart, the liver and the kidneys as well as the brain. There is not space to go into the detail here but a Google search will quickly reveal the long list of adverse effects of any of these drugs.

Over the past few years some canine behaviourists with the support of some veterinary surgeons have been recommending these drugs. This includes the Association of Pet behaviour Counsellors and you can see their independent report on cases where psychotropic drugs were used at (This was compiled in 2003 and I can find no data on psychotropic drugs in the 2004 [latest] report.)

I am concerned that well educated and qualified though many of them are, most canine behaviourists only have the sketchiest understanding of mammalian metabolism and few are qualified to make a judgment any more complex than you make when you make a decision between Beecham’s Powders and Bisodol when you have a headache – either might work but the former is probably more appropriate than the latter.

I should make it clear I am not against the use of drugs. My point is that (like booster vaccines which have finally been recognised as causing some problems for otherwise healthy dogs) they need to be used with care even by qualified professionals. If a doctor puts a patient on insulin (not a psychotropic drug I know but a medication that will be continued throughout the patient’s life) the patient is properly examined, tests are made and a great deal of time is spent ensuring that they thoroughly understand what it does, how it is used and the other nutritional and lifestyle changes that need to be made in order for it to work effectively.Much the same applies to the use of psychotropic drugs. Their doctor should see the patient regularly and they should have physical tests and blood tests to ensure that the medication will not cause more harm than good – it is almost always a long, complicated process.

It seems to me that few of these safeguards are in place when psychotropic drugs are used on our dogs – and on cats too. Firstly, although they have been licensed for human use (and tested on animals) the research on whether they are actually suitable for use in the treatment of animals is minimal. Furthermore, no research has been done into the effects of any given dose. Most humans are roughly the same size – this is not true of canines and as there is no ‘standard’, who is to say at which point a dog is overdosed?

A veterinary surgeon should always do a series of tests before dogs are given any drugs and these must include psychotropic drugs. The problem I have with all this is that vets are prescribing drugs for canine behaviourists on the advice of the behaviourist. Apart from any ethical or professional considerations this is illegal for both parties. And I would ask whether it is helpful? If a dog is exhibiting an unnatural behaviour it takes the time of a professional, preferably within the dog’s home, to seek out the clues to its relationship with its owner and members of the family, and its environment: this is the work for which an experienced canine behaviourist is supposed to do. There are dozens of factors to take into consideration but it appears that sometimes both consultant and owner are tempted to go for a quick, relatively cheap ‘fix’. But if we have the welfare of the dog at the heart of the matter this can seldom be the best way.

I have incontrovertible evidence that one well known behaviourist suggested to a client on the telephone and without having seen the dog, that they see their vet and ask that a specific drug be prescribed for their dog.

I am suggesting readers should take care. Dugs have their place and there may sometimes be a good reason why a veterinary surgeon after fully appraising the situation will want to prescribe a psychotropic drug. On the other hand, the canine behaviourists knowledge of the overall effects of a drug is likely to be limited. You should also know that there are behaviourists who have no need of any sort of psychotropic drug to achieve their objective – a mentally healthy pet giving pleasure to its owner throughout its life.

If anyone suggests that drugs are the answer to a behavioural problem, my advice would be to start with your veterinary surgeon who you should expect to carry out a full physical check-up and a blood test for liver and kidney functions before being prepared to give a prescription for a psychotropic drug. If they propose that a drug may be suitable (and this should be their decision and not the decision of a behaviourist even if that person is their recommendation), your expectation should be that it is for short-term use only.

Drugs are very useful to us and to our pets too. But I believe we should always be cautious in their use and remember the problems they have caused from Thalidomide in the 60s to Vioxx* in 2004.

You might like to go to further information.

*Just as an example, I was prescribed Vioxx for a damaged joint in my toe and took it for several years. When I ricked my back last year, my physiotherapist suggested that it would help me if the dose were doubled while my discs recovered. I was understandably upset when my doctor refused for I might have been on that double dose for six months – but I am not complaining now for a friend recently had two strokes that look as if they were the result of taking that drug.

(September 2005)

13 Comments on “Training – The use of psychotropic drugs to modify canine behaviour”

  1. Radka Says:

    Hi, I like your article. Do you have more information on Lithium and its uses in behavioural modification of dogs? What are Lithiums side effects and how does it work? I can not find a proper answer …

  2. davidcavill Says:

    Thank you for your message. I am neither a doctor, a veterinary surgeon or pharmacologist so you would need to consult a specialist for detailed information. Mine lay understanding of the uses of lithium in humans is that it is designed to treat manic depression through slowing down the flow of sodium through nerve and muscle cells. People who live in a high state of anxiety, are hyperactive, aggressive or cannot manage their anger are treated with lithium. I is not recommended for the use of dogs but I understand that some veterinary surgeons either with or without pressure from those involved in treating dogs difficult to control have been prepared to prescribe it. My concern is that even if this and other similar acting drugs are effective no research has been carried out as to the effect on so there can be no understanding of dosage or efficacy.

  3. Dr manikandan Says:

    it was very usefull.thank you

  4. Deb Bennett Says:

    I work in a shelter and some dogs are on 4 different types of drugs Xanax Clonodine Lovan and Trazadone……
    Your thoughts would be appreciated

    • davidcavill Says:

      It sound hash but if dogs have to be drugged to keep them calm and stable it is kinder to put them to sleep. The danger of their new owners forgetting to drug them when they go to new homes is too great a risk in my view.

      • You’re right, it does sound harsh, but also ridiculous. If your child had a physiological imbalance in his or her brain that caused them debilitating depression and suicidal tendencies, would you opt to end their lives lest you run the risk that they’ll forget to stop taking their meds once no longer in your care. How about a younger brother who’s prescribed Xanax for his PTSD sustained in combat overseas. Do we kill him too?

        Does “treat others as you’d like to be treated” not extend to dogs because they can’t speak for themselves or open their own pill bottles?

        Sometimes there are no good options, only “less bad” ones. Opting to administer anxiolytic or psychotropic drugs to a beloved dog is a decision that should never be taken lightly, but to advocate we draw down the pitch-dark curtain of death over an otherwise healthy dog with an anxiety issues sounds very cruel to me.

      • davidcavill Says:

        I would like to read the article more careful Christian. I would ask you whether a dog with permanent and unresolvable anxiety issues is actually ‘healthy’ to begin with. My article was primarily the result of realising that many canine behaviourists were suggesting that owners go to veterinary surgeons for psychotropic drugs when they themselves could not resolve behavioural problems which should be manageable. Of course, much depends on the seriousness of the condition. One of the great advantages of dogs have only humans is that we do not need to leave them suffer either physically or mentally unnecessarily. Owners must, naturally, do what they believe best for their pet but it has been my experience that most owners, being unconsciously selfish, allow their dogs to suffer much longer than necessary and also that many veterinary surgeons encourage this for (perhaps unconscious) financial reasons. I’m sorry if I appear cynical but I’ve been around a long time and have much evidence support my theses.

  5. Peter Says:

    We got a rescue dog who has very high anxiety and barks ferociously at times. He ruins trips for the other dog and cats and makes car rides miserable. He was likely abused prior to our adopting him. He is a very loving dog when home during quiet times but also gets very loud and appears ferocious when I go out any door. Xanax was given by the vet and it seemed to make him worse and Trazadone did have some calming effect. Incidentally, we tried behavioral training with no positive effect. A different vet gave us Acepromazine (canine formula for Thorazine) along with Trazadone and at more than the minimal dose it worked fairly well. He didn’t appear really drugged and was able to still jump up when there was a disturbance. I don’t really condone drugging dogs but it does seem to reduce his anxiety so that his quality of life is improved with trips and socializing in public.

    • davidcavill Says:

      If he is loving and quiet at home then I do not think drugs are the answer. He is excited or anxious with others (people or dogs) and it is about using very small steps and distraction techniques to gradually reduce the excitement/fear. At exactly what point does he begin to be disturbed? Find ways of reducing that disturbance until he is comfortable with it and then find the next point. Time consuming but it ought to work.

  6. Nick Says:

    I think there should be more research on the use of lithium orotate which can easily be purchased without a prescription. It only comes in low dose pills and tablets so i think the chances of overdose would be rather low. It’s also inexpensive. I haven’t been able to locate much research online about this. Probably good to ask a vet about it. I have a crushed 5mg tablet my mom’s dog one and it didn’t seem to any negative effect. I can’t say it worked very well either. The dog probably needs a little higher of a dose because he’s kinda whacko.

  7. Jacqueline BEARE Says:

    As a judge, I often wonder how many dogs are presented doped to the eyeballs in showrings…Also, how many breeders still breed fron such dogs despite knowing that character and temperament can be passed on to the next generation… There are of course other ways of cheating ones way to winning a show, so It would be nice to share your experience about cheating so that we are better able to recognise some of the most frequent ploys…

    • davidcavill Says:

      You make a good point but I have absolutely no experience of dogs being under any chemical influence in the show ring – but the frequent ‘ploys’ for the judge in the ring have been considered – see my article on Gamesmanship.

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