Pill-popping pets: More pets than ever receiving medication for behavioral issues

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Mar. 2, 2016) - There may be some grey area in the old phrase, "There are no bad dogs, just bad owners."

Veterinarians are seeing more and more animals with behavioral issues that need to be treated with therapy or medication.

Bob St. Charles is one of those dog owners. His dog Cooper is on Prozac to calm his anxiety issues.

"He’ll attack people when they come in – not in an aggressive way - he just wants to be next to somebody." said St. Charles, who tried years of training before moving to medications.

He's not alone. Sales of pet pharmaceuticals is expected to exceed $10 billion this year.

A survey by the American Pet Products Association says 77 percent of Americans used a medication on their dog in 2014 and 4 percent used a drug to treat an anxiety disorder.

"We all would like to have a pill that would fix things, but that, in fact, doesn’t work with this particular type of drug," said Dr. Jim Speiser of IndyVet. 

He prefers other medications to Prozac.

"To me, it’s a drug that the potential side effects I’ve just chosen not to use it," said Dr. Speiser.

Speiser prefers to write prescriptions for other medications if needed, and works to discover the root cause of the problem. This approach is also being taught at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine.

"What owners need to understand is a dog or cat can have a psychological problem, psychological stress can affect their well-being," says Dr. Niwako Ogata.

Purdue isn't against meds being used, but does not prescribe them until after as assessment at the school's Animal Behavior Clinic, which uses tools like two-way mirrors for observation.

"Most of our dogs would be reactive to strangers, to movement, so we put our students on the other side," said Dr. Ogata. Sessions can last for an hour or more and the more family members that can attend, the better so doctors can observe interaction with the animal.

Jamie Clelland went through the process with her dog, Clementine, who suffers from separation anxiety. She and her husband often hire a dog sitter so they can leave for an evening out.

Clelland calls the dog's issues "torment for her, like emotional torment" and says she's determined to help her pet.

Prozac and tips learned at Purdue now help her increase time away from the dog.

"We have a protocol for when we are going to leave. That way we have 'predictable behavior' for her, so she doesn’t spend her whole life wondering, 'Are you leaving? Are you leaving? Are you leaving now?'" said Clelland.

No two animals are alike, and no treatment plan works for every animal.

Because pets cannot speak for themselves, it's up to the owner to observe behaviors and do the research to help vets put them on the path to years of love and companionship.

"Oftentimes it’s not just the owners fault, or owners mistake at all, that’s what we really need to understand," said Dr. Ogata.

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