Pharmacological modification of behavior in dogs and cats

Categories: Vets, Vaccines & Medications
by Laura Yurchak
Last year, Stephanie and I attended a seminar in Illinois featuring Dr. Karen Overall. Dr. Overall is a Diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behavior and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. The information that follows came from that seminar.  This is not a complete listing of behavior medications. It is just the tip of the iceberg, but there is enough there to talk about. The seminar changed my view point on pharmaceutical treatment for behavior problems.

There are times that I do feel that drug intervention is needed. If you have exhausted all other avenues and your pet still has behavior issues, it may be time to think seriously about a behavior modification drug. The drug should be part of the counter conditioning-desensitizing program to get the full benefit from them both. Many new drugs and enhanced dietary regimes have a huge potential for improve life for troubled pets and their distressed owners. Rational drug use should be considered a part of humane treatment.

I have always worried about side effects when using drugs. Ever pay attention to the ads on TV as they describe the side effect of the drug in the commercial? I am blown away at the severity of some of them. Cancer, internal bleeding, and sudden death! Which is worse, the illness or the side effect of the drug? I still have my concerns about all side effects but I try to make a logical decision with as much information on the drug as possible.

My Border Collie mix, Harley, has storm anxiety. I tried herbs, flower essences, counter conditioning-desensitizing and a Thundershirt to help him. The Thundershirt does give him some relief but when combined with Alprazolam, he is able to function during thunderstorms without trembling, whining and panic. To work properly, I need to give this to him about an hour before a storm hits. This isn’t always possible. If a storm is in progress when I get home, I will give him one pill and put the Thundershirt on. It takes about 15-20 min and he seems much better.

Before starting any drug, your veterinarian will want to run blood tests to make sure the dog is healthy enough to take the drug.   They may also require other tests like an EEG. Treatment must continue for eight weeks before efficacy can be determined. When starting any drug for the first time, you should be home to monitor your dog’s reactions. Watch for those side effects. Typical signs may include gastrointestinal disturbances, appetite change, sedation, or increase in heart rate.   Ask your veterinarian to show you how to take your dogs pulse rate. Request a listing of side effects if you aren’t given one. Ask which side effects are considered an emergency. Work as a team with your veterinarian.

Classifications of behavior modification drugs.


  • Decrease spontaneous activity, decreases response to external or social stimuli interfering with behavioral modification.
  • Phenothiazines (e.g. chlorpromazine, promazine, acetylpromazine) are outdated. These have side effects from long standing usage.
  • Acepromazine makes animals more reactive to noises and startle but less able to do anything about it. This can make the animal more reactive with time. This sedates the dog. This is not recommended for noise anxiety.

Benzodiazepine (BZ)

  • Used in treatment of anxiety and aggression
  • Low dosages act as calming agents or mild sedatives, facilitating calmer activity by tempering excitement.
  • Moderate dosages act as anti-anxiety agents facilitating social interaction in a more proactive manner.
  • High dosages act as hypnotics, facilitating sleep.
  • Used for sporadic events involving profound anxiety or fear such as storms, fireworks and panic associated with departure of humans.
  • Given 1 hour before anticipated event.
  • Concerns: Not all dogs respond the same. Some may become sedated and other too excited.
  • Most common:
    • Alprazolam  (Xanax)– panic, noise, storms, vet visits, rides, generalized or situational anxiety (with Imodium)
    • Oxazepam (Serax) – this has anti-anxiety and muscle relaxing properties. It is prescribe to stimulate appetite and treat anxiety.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

  • Mood elevator
  • Selegiline (Anipryl) – treatment of cognitive dysfunction in cats and dogs.

Tricyclic anti-depressants (TCAs)

  • Used in humans to treat various mental conditions.
  • Side effects in dogs: gastrointestinal distress, changes in appetites and discomfort associated with unremitting tachycardia. These resolve when drug is removed. Severe side effects can involve cardiac affects.
  • Cats are likely to be more sensitive to TCAs than dogs.
  • Contraindicated in animals with a history of urinary retention, glaucoma and uncontrolled cardiac arrhythmia.
  • High doses can alter liver enzyme levels.
  • Extremely high dose can involve convulsions, cardiac abnormalities and hepatotoxicity.
  • Extremely successful in treating separation anxiety, generalized anxiety that may be a precursor to some elimination and aggressive behaviors, pruritic conditions that may be involved with self mutilation, acral lick dermatitis, compulsive grooming and some narcoleptic disorders.
    • Amitriptyline (Elavil) – separation and generalized anxiety.
    • Imipramine (Tofranil) – useful in treating human mild attention deficit disorders and may be useful in dogs since it has been used to treat mild narcolepsy.
    • Carbamazepine (Tegretol) – used to control aberrant activity in canine psychomotor seizures.
    • Clomipramine (Anafranil) – – acts as a SSRI, successful in canine obsessive compulsive disorders. Used to treat separation anxiety.


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

  • Severe side effects can involve cardiac affects.
    • Fluoxetine (Prozac) – efficacious in treating profound aggressions, separation anxiety, panic and ODCs.
    • Paroxetine (Paxil) – efficacious in treating depression, social anxiety and agitation associated with depression.
    • Sertraline (Zoloft) – useful particularly for generalized anxiety and panic disorders.
    • Fluvoxamine (Luvox) –  almost identical to Fluoxetine (Prozac), though structurally it is quite different
    • Clomipramine (Anafranil)– See above

Some medications can be used with others and some cannot. Your veterinarian will know if certain drugs can be used together. Never mix any drugs without consulting you veterinarian first. Never give a human drug to an animal without consulting your veterinarian first. Some human drugs may have additional ingredients that are toxic to animals. When stopping a behavioral medication, weaning is preferred. This minimizes potential withdrawal issues.

Behavioral problems in pets are responsible for more surrenders and death than infectious disease, neoplasia and cardiac disease combined. Using behavioral medication may be of help. Drugs alone are not the answer. True behavioral modification, in combination with behavioral drugs, can effect cognitive change to alter a pet’s behavior.