Dear Dr. Fox:
I am a regular reader of your column and a couple of dog magazines, and I’ve noticed that in recent years, more veterinarians are prescribing drugs to treat anxiety and other behavioral problems in dogs.
I always asked for a dog trainer or behaviorist when I had issues with my dogs, and I never needed to resort to these mind-altering drugs, which can have side effects. My sister’s dog turned into a zombie when it was put on medication for separation anxiety. What is your opinion?
DF: First, let me say that some psychopharmaceuticals can help dogs and other animals when used with caution, when the cause of a problem cannot be eliminated from the animal’s environment or identified, and when behavior modification attempts fail.
Behavior modification is often applied in conjunction with prescribed medications. Such an approach can be effective, partly because animals’ emotions are neurochemically analogous to our own — yes, the inner emotional life of other animals is more similar to ours than different!
I questioned the overreliance on psychopharmaceuticals to help animals adapt to situations in which they do not belong — such as a dog being left at home in a crate all day — in my recent book “Healing Animals & the Vision of One Health.”
The trend of applying mind-altering drugs to help animals cope in stimulation-lacking and socially deprived domestic environments is an ethical concern that all responsible parties need to address.
This trend parallels the stunning findings in a recent national survey by Dr. Steven Cuffe and associates from the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville’s department of psychiatry: Nearly half of preschoolers are on medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, often not coupled with behavioral therapy.
We have had a 1-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel since she was 8 weeks old. She is adorable, playful and affectionate, but she has some issues that we aren’t sure how to deal with. She has always seemed prone to nervousness and anxiety, but things have escalated recently.
She growls or whines when certain new things are brought into the house. She growls at reflections on the wall, and she has become fearful of eating out of her food bowl. This started shortly after she returned from spending several days with a dog sitter who had other dogs in the house. I have tried other plates and bowls, but she will eat only off a paper towel on the floor.
Because she eats dry food, it is not an issue to feed her this way. Lately, she has become anxious when I take her to new places for walks. I took her to one the other day, and she whined and cried so much, I finally turned around.
I try to give her as much exercise as I can: She is walked at least three miles a day, has a fenced-in yard to play in, and I play fetch with her daily. She has a lot of energy, and if she is not exercised, she is very restless. She has always been a good sleeper at night, thankfully.
The vet suggested that we try giving her the herbal pill Anxitane, and she’s been taking it for three months. I think it helps somewhat. We wanted to try this before we tried Prozac or another pharmaceutical used for anxiety.
We would prefer not to spend a small fortune on hiring a behaviorist. We love her dearly, but we would like to have a more relaxed dog, if possible. We are open to Prozac and are willing to go that route if it would help her.
L.R., Montgomery County
DF: You letter clearly indicates that you are an informed and caring canine caregiver and, for whatever reason, have the burden of a young dog with ever-increasing behavioral problems.
Given the developmental abnormalities in purebred dogs, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel in particular, most veterinarians would consider your dog’s abnormal behavior as the first possible signs of a brain disease prevalent in this breed called caudal occipital malformation syndrome. This is a congenital abnormality at the base of the skull that, as the dog matures, results in compression on the rear part of the brain. This abnormality is usually combined with syringohydromyelia, which is the result of blockage of circulating cerebrospinal fluid.
This condition might be just beginning to show up in your dog as pain around the neck region, which could trigger anxiety and conditioned fear reactions to certain stimuli. More serious neurological symptoms might soon develop, including an unsteady gait and seizures.
This condition is treatable and should be ruled out as a possible reason for your dog’s evident distress and abnormal behaviors before trying a short course of treatment with an anxiety-relieving drug.
Dear Dr. Fox:
I recently read your column about the cat with a feline hyperesthesia syndrome.
When my cat was 9 months old, he developed the syndrome suddenly. He was completely normal one day, and then it happened in the middle of the night. After countless traditional and holistic vet visits and numerous hours of research, my husband and I realized the trigger and changed his diet. It has been more than 18 months since he’s had an episode.
I was feeding him a poultry-based diet with supplemental canned fish. After much research, I took him off all feathered foods and put him on a raw diet. I’m currently feeding him Primal Raw Beef and Salmon, with canned fish and beef on occasion. I buy freeze-dried treats, and I keep Origen Regional Red dry food on hand if I need it in a pinch.
My take on feline hyperesthesia syndrome is that it’s not triggered by just one thing, but by a combination of mind, body and environmental components.
In my experience, there were triggers that set him off, specifically sensitivity on the body itself, especially his paws. He had no injuries, but I noticed they were sensitive. In addition, a fabric softener smell triggered him. Once he was at the point of a rolling back and twitching, I gave him a massage to calm him down, which helped, and gave him a treat as a sort of reset.
Sometimes he became fixated on overgrooming, and I would stimulate him by playing with him several times a day. After taking this into account, my husband and I agreed that another cat could help. We sought a cat that was a little younger than ours, and after looking for almost two months, we found a perfect match.
Our cat’s last episode was in summer 2013. I’m delighted to say that we are all living a healthy and happy life together.
T.L., St. Louis
DF: Same with one of my cats! It was fish that set him off. Still, he has sudden episodes even after a change in diet, and I, too, find that gentle grooming, massage therapy, redirection with interactive games or time outdoors on our cat-secure open deck gets him out of his compulsive self-grooming.
Underlying thyroid issues must be considered, and for many cats that live alone, boredom and lack of stimulation might be significant triggers, as is anxiety, which can lead to more serious self-mutilation.
This is a far more complex feline disorder than generally perceived.
Michael W. Fox, author of a newsletter and books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at United Feature Syndicate, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106.