Fear is a common reaction for many pets when taken to the vet because they don’t understand what we are doing. I personally wanted to discuss the things we can do to help reduce our pet’s fear, as one of my own dogs has needed much help coping with stress over the years. I understand the human emotions that can accompany our pet’s fearful behavior. Often we may feel helpless, embarrassed, or frustrated. Ultimately, we cannot talk with them and explain the ‘why,’ so we use techniques that may help reduce stress in other ways.
There are many things out there that can help pets who are feeling stressed. However, none of them help every pet every time. We often have to try new things to determine how effective they are going to be, in a trial-and-error fashion.
In this blog, I want to focus on pharmaceuticals and medications. We may refer to these as ’PVPs,’ or Pre-Visit Pharmaceuticals. This in no way discounts other options such as nutritional supplements, pheromones, and even various types of gear, such as the Thundershirt®. I wanted to focus on the medications because these are generally the most feared and misunderstood by pet owners who deeply care for their pet’s health.
The types of medications used for this purpose have evolved over the years, and some of the historical options for this were unhealthy for our pets. This stigma surrounding those medications has lingered, even though it is an entirely different landscape today.
When animals were stressed, we used to simply give them drugs that are only sedating. These drugs made the body physically weak and sleepy, so that we may overpower a fearful animal and do what we needed to do. We now know that these drugs have the potential to damage some of our internal organs over time, and they really don’t calm down the mind. Our pets were still afraid, they were just incapable of acting out on it.
As these drugs fell out of favor, our human anxiety drugs like Valium® and Xanax® became popular because they helped the brain feel better, in addition to sedating our pets a bit. They are also very safe on our internal organs so we could feel better that we weren’t hurting our pets. The biggest drawback with this type of medication is what I refer to as the ‘angry drunk.’ Most dogs are more calm and relaxed after taking these, but every now-and-then they seem to feel uneasy, disoriented, and afraid, actually making their stress worse.
Nowadays, many vets choose a medication called trazodone for our dogs. It is in the same family of drugs as some of the most popular antidepressants for people. This fact alone makes me feel better giving it to my own fearful dog; looking at fear as a form of unhappiness, this medication has increased her ‘happy hormones.’ Beyond feeling happier, this medication has a side effect of making them sleepy, so that they are generally more calm and relaxed. This drug class also does not have damaging effects internally so we may rest easy knowing we are not hurting our pet.
For our cats that don’t like coming to the vet, we have followed a very similar evolution. They were especially sensitive to the older
drugs, which potentially contributed to chronic kidney disease that is so common in our older cats. We can, and still do, use Valium® and Xanax® in cats. The ‘angry drunk’ situation that occurs somewhat commonly in dogs, is less common in cats, and is very safe and does not damage their internal organs. However, many vets now find the effects of a drug called gabapentin are preferred. It is also not damaging to internal organs, tends to last a little longer, and produce a more smooth sedation. It is also virtually flavorless, and can often be slipped into a bit of wet food, and most cats eat it without realizing it. This medication may also be used to treat pain.
This discussion mostly focused on the medications we would use for situational anxiety or anxiety that is generally short-lived and came about because of a very specific situation such as vet visits or fireworks. There are many dogs and cats who seem more anxious in general, leading to destructive behavior, aggression, and general discontent in a household. There are other options for long-term use for these kinds of pets. Generally, we would use medications that have no sedating effects, they usually only change the unwanted behaviors.
If you want to talk more about your pet and their anxiety, please call our office to schedule an appointment with one of our doctors. A treatment plan tailored to your pet’s needs can be made and we can discuss many of the other options available that may help as well.