To medicate or Not medicate?


This is vexed for many caregivers.

For me it is simple. If the animal I see before me displays behaviours that are abnormal in frequency, intensity and duration despite the intervention of adequate, positive training then this is a sign that the animal is an “outlier” on the bell curve of what “normal” animals do. He/she is having trouble learning and medication can help in this area.

It is not a question, to me, of belief. Lately some clients have said they do not believe in medicating. To me this is a bit like saying I don’t believe the earth is a sphere.

It is not a question of belief. This is not a religion.

We use medication because science has proven its effectiveness and as advocates for animals it makes perfect sense to treat emotional pain as much as we would fix a fractured leg or use insulin to treat a diabetic.

When professional positive reinforcement trainers tell me they have seen an animal who is not making the progress they expect from consistent training it is a good indication that there is something inherently underlying the failure to improve. Caregivers and trainers often feel they have failed, but it is not a question of failure – it is because the animal does not have the equipment to make sense of the training asked of it. Medication helps these individuals and hence if your trainer identifies your dog as a patient who should see the vet behaviourist – please take their advice.

Medication makes sense for animals that are suffering from emotional instability, just as it makes sense to help the emotional lives of humans. Yes medicating animals can have side effects, but this is why caregivers should consult with a professional, such as a veterinary behaviourist, who has a lot of experience about the way these medications work and their effects on the body and the brain. Daily I prescribe these medications and I know their effects intimately. Yes, sometimes they may not suit an individual and the medication is withdrawn, sometimes the effect is underwhelming and something else may be tried and then sometimes the effect is profoundly positive and life changing.

When I use medications in animals with behaviour problems it is not as a replacement for behaviour modification and training.

That work still needs to be done, but, under the influence of medication, animals are able to learn faster, and be calmer as they learn, and hence the training proceeds quicker and more efficiently, allowing both caregiver and animal some respite from the stress of their behaviour issue.

Everyone knows how hard it is to learn new stuff and retain new knowledge under a cloud of stress and anxiety. Our animals struggle with this too. Can you solve a complex maths problem hanging from a cliff? Probably not, and so too our animals cannot sometimes learn the new cues being asked of them if they are bombarded with their stresses and fears. Lowering emotional reactivity and reducing anxiety can allow animals to learn new cues much faster and once they have these cues in place then the learning can continue and positive behaviour change continue.

Caregivers sometimes fear that their companion will lose their personality on medication but this is not what we see.

Which you do you prefer – the stressed you or the relaxed you?

We do not aim to use medication to sedate an animal so it cannot perform the problem behaviour. Animals should not look sedated on the right dose of their behaviour medication. Animals maintain all of their personality on medication but they are no longer on the brink of collapse when they are faced with a trigger to their fear.

3 thoughts on “To medicate or Not medicate?

  1. I have read most of the blogs re animal behaviour, but have not found anything dealing with the problem I have i.e. over excitability but only when going in the car at home the dog is calm and well mannered. So I feel that this is a learned behaviour from when he came to us after living with the same family for six years. We have tried several ways of approaching this by creating a calm way of leaving the house, putting his collar on long before we leave… but nothing has worked. As soon as the dog knows we are about to go somewhere, which he does almost before we do, by reading small changes in our body language, he becomes excited, quivering, panting, prancing. Is there any article that deals with this situation. Regards April May


    1. Yes this may be learnt and sounds well practiced so will take time to overcome. A calm behaviour needs to be trained well and you may need the assistance of behavioural trainer. Anxiety can sometimes be confused as excitement and therefore further help may be required. You could consider an appointment with a vet behaviourist. All the best, Nicole


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