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Psychiatric Drugs: Not Just for Humans Any More

illustration of a bad dog

Pill Popping Pets was the title of widely discussed 11-page (!) magazine article in the New York Times on the use of new medications developed to control or correct unwanted doggy behavior.

Who knew American dog owners were spending millions of dollars on behavior altering pills for their dogs?

I believe there are three reasons for this:

1. The large pharmaceutical companies now actively market to pet owners.

Other than consumer electronics, pet products are the fastest growing retail segment in the country today.

From 2003 to 2007, revenues just in Eli Lily’s “Companion Animal Division” and Pfizer "Animal Health’s Division" increased by 57 percent. Last year, sales of drugs for pets surpassed those for farm animals for the first time.

2. People don't understand what is and isn't normal doggy behavior.

Any breeder can tell you stories of clients who call to complain that their puppy chews everything in the house, their dog is digging in their back yard or their dog won't stop barking when he's outside alone all night.

In the words of author Dr. Ian Dunbar: “What do we expect dogs to do when we go to work — watch the telly, do the crosswords or read the paper?”

3. Today's owners want quick fixes and don't know how, or won't, train their dogs.

Many, many people see their dogs as furry little children and can't bear to 'discipline' them. How much easier is it to buy Pfizer's Slentrol diet pills for a dog rather than enforce a regimen of diet and exercise on your dog?

For lonely dogs with separation anxiety, Eli Lily brought out Reconcile – the only difference between that and Prozac is that Reconcile is chewable and tastes like beef.

There also are the misconceptions out there that all training of dogs must be all positive. It's the ridiculous notion that you ignore all bad behavior. So if Fido jumps up on 90-year-old Granny and causes her to fall down, you ignore the whole scene and just hope she doesn't break her hip. This is a guarantee that dogs will never be reliably trained (and you may be sued).

Corrections do not mean beating a dog. It means something as mild as turning your back to a dog that tries to jump up on you or making a loud unpleasant noise such as with training discs when a dog starts to shred your slippers. It's criminal, or should be, that so many owners refuse to do it.

A legitimate question is whether pets popping pills is for the health of the pet or the convenience of the owner.

Of course the answer is the latter. Many people see their dogs as their children and want them to be well-behaved little children. Instead they get little children who may eat their own feces, roll around in the smelliest dirt available and chew expensive human shoes and clothing.

It would be easy to dismiss pill popping and even try to curb it but the reality is that behavior problems are a prevalent reason, if not the main reason, why dogs get turned into animal shelters and are often euthanized.

If we can alleviate the unwanted behavior, even by chemicals, we may save a dog's life.

The New York Times article quoted one anonymous but honest pharmaceutical executive:

“All of the behavioral issues that we have created in ourselves, we are now creating in our pets because they live in the same unhealthy environments that we do,” he said. “That’s why there is a market for these drugs.”


I have two suggestions for dog owners before they turn to mood-altering drugs (for themselves or their dogs):

1) Be certain your expectations for your dog are realistic

Read up on dog breeds (hint: visit http://www.ToyBreeds.com) before you get a dog so you understand what you'll be getting. For example, it's unrealistic to get a Yorkshire Terrier and then be shocked that he barks - a lot. Do your homework.

Visit your library and read books by Cesar Millan, Ian Dunbar, Victoria Stillwell or whatever dog trainer books they have. Ask experienced dog owners or dog breeders about your dog's behavior. There are ways to control digging, for example, that don't involve chemicals.


2) Get a second dog

Boredom is the surest and most prevalent cause of bad behavior in dogs (and human children). Dogs are social creatures and need companionship.

Two dogs can keep each company and help alleviate much of the destructive behavior of a bored, lonely dog left alone in the house all day or of a frustrated dog not getting the exercise and attention he needs.

As a rule of thumb, it’s usually best to have a male and female or two males assuming they’re both neutered. Two females often can’t peacefully share a home.

Bottom line, when it comes to technology, if it can be done; it will be done.

Let's just try to use drugs wisely and minimally.

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