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Pill Popping Pups?

It was the early 1980s and Nicholas Dodman of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University was standing next to a colleague watching a dog that had been brought into the Animal Behavior Clinic. The dog was panting furiously and pacing around the room. It cringed and trembled when it was approached.

Dodman looked up and announced that the dog was clearly feeling anxious. His colleague shook his head and muttered something about the dangers of treating dogs as if they had such human-like feelings. “Dogs don’t experience the same mental states and emotions that people do,” he argued.

Dodman’s colleague was really restating a belief that many scientists have held since the 1600s. It began with René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician, and biologist who claimed that only humans have feelings and conscious mental processes. Animals were thought to be simply the equivalent of biological machines with no psychological processes worth mentioning.

Two hundred years later, Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution changed our view of the biological world, challenged Descartes. He suggested that animals have much the same mental abilities as people, although these may be more limited in scope. Furthermore, he believed that the emotional experiences of animals are quite similar to those of humans.

Dodman was clearly siding with Darwin when he answered his colleague with “Well, how about this? Let’s give the dog an anti anxiety drug and see what happens.”

What happened made history: the dog’s behavior improved dramatically.

At the biological level of analysis, this is what should have happened. The brain of the dog is very similar to that of humans in many ways. The limbic system, which controls the major emotions, including fear and anger, exists in both species and operates in a similar manner. Furthermore, the basic neural chemistry of dogs and people is the same.

When faced with psychological problems in dogs, veterinarians such as Dodman turned to the drugs designed for people. Just as he had predicted, Prozac in various forms not only successfully controlled anxiety-related problems in dogs but also helped reduce some forms of aggression. This prompted Eli Lilly, the company that manufactures Prozac, to create a chewable, beef-flavoured version of the medication specifically designed for dogs.

Unfortunately, these drugs are not the perfect solution. By law, only veterinarians can prescribe such medications and they are expensive. SRI’s do not cure the problems overnight, but often take three to six weeks before any improvement is noticed. Furthermore, the drugs must be administered regularly for the effect to build up. If the course of medication is interrupted for a few days, the benefits are lost and you face several weeks of treatment before they will be restored.

The available data, based on reports from dog owners, suggests that drugs help in 50 to 60 percent of cases of extreme phobia or severe separation anxiety, and in 75 to 90 percent of cases of aggression. Sometimes the failure of the drug to provide a long-term solution comes about because the dogs’ owners stop administering the medication when the symptoms finally go away, while others may feel that the medication isn’t working when the problem doesn’t disappear after the first week or so of using the drug.

If you suspect that your dog’s brain chemistry is the cause of his aggression and mood swings, there is something that you can do that is less expensive than veterinary treatment and also can be used as an aid if you are going to try behavioural treatments for such problems. The first involves 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a naturally occurring amino acid used by the body in the manufacture of serotonin. In North America, it is marketed as a dietary supplement and is available over the counter in health-food stores and some pharmacies. It is designed for people who want an antidepressant and something that may aid in sleep, but it works by effectively increasing the production of serotonin in the nerve endings and therefore can help reduce anxiety and aggressive tendencies in many dogs. As in the case of Prozac, the effects may not be seen until the treatment has gone on for up to six weeks, and if you stop administering it at any time, you lose any benefits and must start over. Doses of 5-HTP are often recommended as a “booster” along with behavioural treatment of these problems.

One non-drug treatment that specifically targets aggression is still being researched but appears promising. At Tufts University, a team of researchers switched dogs to low-protein, preservative-free diets and found that the diet seemed to reduce certain types of aggression in a reasonable percentage of dogs. Changing your aggressive dog’s diet in this way is worth a try because if it works for your pet, you’ll see the effects within a week or so and you don’t have much to lose. *Stanley Coren @ moderndogmagazine.com

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