A case for paws on Prozac

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published February 21, 2018

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Shutterstock image

METRO DETROIT — It’s a tale Dr. Theresa DePorter has seen time and time again: Pet parents, at their wits’ end, bring their dog into the clinic for behavioral issues. The dog won’t listen to commands, won’t look its owner in the eye and destroys things around the house.

That dog has major issues with dominance, right?

Not even close, DePorter says. 

“It’s such a misconception that dogs are (always) trying to be dominant or be in charge,” she explained. “If we think he’s just trying to be a boss and control us, and we’re wrong, then we’ve been yelling at him and taking away privileges and forcing obedience training and using devices like choke collars to startle him when really, I spend some time with them and not only is it not dominance but it’s fear, and people feel really bad about how their pet is feeling at that moment.”

DePorter is a veterinarian at Oakland Veterinary Referral Services in Bloomfield Hills. She’s also certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine — a designation awarded to only about 80 professionals in North America, and even fewer across the pond.

In short, DePorter is the “go-to” person to see when pet parents have exhausted all of their options trying to get their furry friends to behave. More often than not, she said, pets aren’t purposefully trying to turn their home into a shambles; it’s just collateral damage in the path of some major panic.

“Animals can have anxiety or fears or phobias that are going to influence their behavior. When they become extreme and interfere with their normal lives, they come to see me,” she said. “If a dog panics and can’t function or settle down, they might be mildly destructive and try to escape from a crate or claw at doorways and windows. Others might be so bad they try to break through bars and door moldings so hard they break their teeth.”

The worst part? Behavioral issues, which are often misunderstood and completely treatable, are the No. 1 reason why families relinquish a pet or opt for euthanasia. DePorter and so many other vets are working to spread awareness of animal mental health issues and how they can be treated in a variety of ways. 

Training is, of course, always an option, DePorter said. That is, when positive reinforcement is used to make the experience rewarding instead of inducing further anxiety.

Another common option is to put some good vibes into the air with calming pet pheromones, according to Dr. John Rozenbaum, of the Advanced Veterinary Medical Center in Farmington Hills. The pheromones are dispersed via different mediums, from collars and sprays to home plug-ins, and they are odorless to humans. The idea is that pheromones mimic natural comfort chemicals exuded by a biological mother. 

“One of the most common products is the pheromone Adaptil, which helps them relax,” Rozenbaum said. “It releases a hormone common during pregnancy in dogs.”

When all else fails, just like in humans, medications might be in order. And perhaps not surprisingly, Rozenbaum said, the same medicines prescribed to humans to curb anxiety are what veterinarians reach for when treating their four-legged patients. 

“We can use trazodone for temporary help, say, after a surgery,” he said. “It helps mellow them out for a bit, since we can’t really tell our patients to sit still or be quiet for a week while they heal.”

DePorter said fluoxetine is commonly used to treat anxiety issues in pets, along with other antidepressants, like sertraline and venlafaxine — known, respectively, by their name brands: Prozac, Zoloft and Effexor. They’ve yielded good results with minimal side effects, she said. Of course, that’s all after a thorough consultation and close observation during treatment.

“A lot of people are hesitant to use medications for pet behavior problems, and people also don’t want to sedate their pet — have them laying around like a rug and not move. When I’m working to reduce a pet’s anxiety, I want them to be more animated, silly, playful, exuberant. That’s what I’m going to look for as benchmarks for improvement. And once I discuss those objectives with clients, we realize we want the same thing for their pet.”