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Side Effects of Anxiety Medications in Dogs

Serotonin Syndrome

Dogs suffering from compulsive behaviors, separation anxiety, chronic pain and other conditions may benefit from medications that affect the level of serotonin in the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that works in the brain, and is found in the nervous system. It regulates behavior, awareness of pain, appetite, movement, body temperature, and function of the heart and lungs.

If a dog is taking more than one type of medication that causes levels of serotonin to increase in the body, a condition known as serotonin syndrome (SS) can result, and if not caught in time, can lead to death.

Symptoms and Types

As seen in humans, serotonin syndrome may cause:

  • Altered mental state (confusion, depression, or hyperactivity)
  • Difficulty walking
  • Trembling and seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Increased body temperature (hyperthermia)

Causes

Drugs prescribed as antidepressants in humans are becoming more common for use in animals. These medications alter the body’s levels of serotonin, and thus alter mood and behaviors. Some commonly used antidepressant drugs in dogs include buspirone, fluoxetine, and clomipramine.

Serotonin syndrome can be triggered when:

  • Antidepressant drugs are given in excess
  • Other drugs which affect serotonin levels are also ingested (e.g., amphetamines, chlorpheniramine, fentanyl, lithium, LSD)
  • Individuals with a system more sensitive to the chemical ingest these medications
  • Certain foods are ingested along with medications (e.g., cheese, anything containing L-tryptophan)

Signs of serotonin syndrome usually come on rapidly in dogs; anywhere from 10 minutes up to four hours after ingestion. 

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will conduct blood tests to figure out if your dog could have an infection, as well as to determine what substances the dog might have eaten. Neurological testing (measuring reflexes and coordination) will also be done to pinpoint a specific area of the nervous system that might be affected, like the brain or spinal cord. There is not a specific test that can be run to tell your veterinarian that serotonin syndrome is to blame. The history of drug ingestion and the signs your dog is showing should lead to the proper diagnosis.

tryptophan

A type of amino acid that is essential for the rebuilding and repair of damaged tissues in humans and animals

tachypnea

The term for a quick heartbeat

neurotransmitter

Any sub stance that allows impulses to be transmitted from one neuron to the next

hyperthermia

High body temperature

tachycardia

A medical condition in which the patient has an abnormally fast heartbeat

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Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs commonly results in destructive or otherwise inappropriate behavior when an owner leaves the pet or is not in close proximity to it. Behaviors that may be seen include vocalization, destroying objects, digging, or even depression. However, these behaviors may also be due to other conditions or environmental cues. Therefore, it is important for the behaviorist or veterinarian to obtain the dog’s history before attributing separation anxiety as the primary or sole cause of the behavior.

Symptoms and Types of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety causes some pets to be extremely destructive while their owners are away. Typically, separation anxiety occurs during the first hour of the owner leaving. They may also vocalize, attempt to follow the owner, or defecate or urinate in the house. Some dogs will stop eating, act depressed, hide, whine, or pant. These dogs will usually behave in an excessively excited manner when the owner returns home.

Diagnostics for Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Other behavioral conditions may mimic separation anxiety, so it is important to analyze the symptoms and history of the dog. There may be underlying medical issues, so seeing a veterinarian is an important step. Also, young animals may have other reasons for similar behaviors. For example, teething kittens may need appropriate things to chew on or may not be fully housetrained and may not truly be experiencing separation anxiety.

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Dementia (Geriatric) in Dogs

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome  in Dogs

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is a condition related to the aging of a dog’s brain, which ultimately leads to changes in awareness, deficits in learning and memory, and decreased responsiveness to stimuli. Although the initial symptoms of the disorder are mild, they gradually worsen over time, also known as “cognitive decline.” In fact, clinical signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome are found in 50 percent of dogs over the age of 11, and by the age of 15, 68 percent of dogs display at least one sign.

Symptoms and Types

  • Disorientation/confusion
  • Anxiety/restlessness
  • Extreme irritability
  • Decreased desire to play
  • Excessive licking
  • Seeming disregard for previously learned training or house rules
  • Slow to learn new tasks
  • Inability to follow familiar routes
  • Lack of self-grooming
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Changes in sleep cycle (i.e, night waking, sleeping during the day)

Causes

Although the exact cause of cognitive dysfunction syndrome is currently unknown, genetic factors may predispose an animal to develop the condition.

Diagnosis

You will need to give a thorough history of your dog’s health to your veterinarian, including the onset and nature of the symptoms and possible incidents that might have precipitated the unusual behaviors or complications. He or she will then perform a complete physical examination to evaluate the overall health status and cognitive functions of the dog. Routine blood tests, ultrasounds, and X-rays are also employed to rule out other diseases that may lead to behavioral changes associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

urinary incontinence

A medical condition; implies that the patient is unable to control their urination.

selenium

An element found in trace amounts in soil; closely related to sulfur

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Valerian Root for Dogs: Does It Work?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

If your dog is terrified during thunderstorms or becomes anxious when left home alone, valerian root may offer relief. It’s an herbal supplement with mild sedative qualities that humans have traditionally used to alleviate insomnia, stress, and anxiety. Integrative veterinarians also recommend it for their anxious canine patients.

Valerian root is not without its risks. You need to watch for side effects, especially if your dog takes other medications or supplements. And because dogs are individuals (just like us), it may not work as well for yours as it does for the pup living down the block.

Before investing in a bottle of valerian root capsules or liquid, it’s important to learn the essentials: Are valerian supplements safe? Are there side effects? And do they even work? Our vet experts weigh in on valerian root’s usefulness for treating anxiety in dogs. Of course, you should run any supplements past your own vet before giving it to your canine companion.

The Science Behind Valerian Root

Valerian supplements, available as teas, drops, capsules, and more, are made from Valeriana officinalis, a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Valerian root is best known for its sedating qualities, and is used to relieve insomnia and anxiety, and control seizures, says Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian with Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners in Sandy Springs, Georgia. It works similarly to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes familiar names like Valium and Xanax.

Researchers aren’t precisely sure how valerian works, but they think it may increase the amount of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. “Valerian root is believed to work via the receptors of the GABA, which blocks nerve transmissions between neurons that stimulate activity. Therefore GABA has a calming effect,” explains Wynn, who is board certified in veterinary nutrition.

According to the NIH, evidence of valerian root’s sedating and anxiety-reducing effects in humans has been inconclusive. And in dogs, studies are non-existent. “All recommendations for the use of valerian root in veterinary medicine are either concluded from human and small mammal studies, or based on anecdotal evidence,” says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, an integrative veterinarian with Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia.

Should You Give Your Dog Valerian Root?

Despite the lack of solid evidence, many integrative vets recommend giving dogs valerian root for anxiety, sedation, and improving nighttime sleep, McFaddin says. “Specific conditions in which valerian root may be recommended include noise phobias—including thunderstorms, fireworks, and gunfire—separation anxiety, visits to the veterinary office, travel, on walks with aggressive dogs, and when hosting large groups of people at home.”

Even though safety studies of valerian root for dogs don’t exist, Wynn says that overall, it’s a safe herb. “The American Herbal Products Association publishes a text that rates safety of herbs, and considers valerian safe in all people, including pregnant women.” But dogs aren’t people, she says. “I am aware of no case reports or studies that address safety in pregnant dogs, so I would not advise using it in this group of dogs.”

If you do give your dog valerian root, watch for symptoms like drowsiness or lethargy, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian based in New Jersey. The herb can interact with anesthetics, so it shouldn’t be given within two weeks prior to a procedure. “It may also interact with sedative or anti-epileptic drugs, making them more potent. Anti-fungal drugs, in particular, may have greater side effects when used with valerian.”

Before starting your dog on a regimen, understand that valerian root isn’t guaranteed to provide sufficient relief. “If the pet has anxiety that is bad enough that the pet will cause harm to himself or others, medication may be required,” Morgan says. “If the pet has seizures that cannot be controlled, anti-seizure medication may be warranted.”

Valerian root is not a panacea. “If I have an owner who reports insomnia, I look for a medical problem because this is the likely cause in animals,” Wynn says. “For anxiety, I never recommend an herb or a drug unless the owner understands that they must institute behavior modification methods at the same time.”

 

How to Give Your Dog Valerian Root

Even though experts consider valerian root to be safe, they do recommend that you contact your vet before giving it to your pet. Aside from the potential for interactions with other drugs and your dog’s individual health issues, dosing can be tricky, and potentially dangerous if administered incorrectly.

“The dose range for the dried herb and tincture is very large and dependent on the dog’s level of anxiety or stress,” McFaddin says. “And a lower dose may be needed if the dog is taking other medication for anxiety or sedation.” According to Veterinary Herbal Medicine, by Wynn and Barbara Fougere, the recommended dose of dried valerian root for a dog is between 1 and 7.5 grams, and for tinctures is between 7 and 15 milliliters.

Still, “None of these doses have been established using clinical trials,” Wynn says. “It’s all guesswork at this point, and only trained herbalists would be expected to start at the right dose.”

Dosing depends on the form of valerian—capsule, drops, or whole-dried root—says Morgan, but generally speaking, “It should be administered three to four times daily in small doses starting a few days before the anxiety-inducing event.” Fresh valerian root is also available, but she says a dosage would be hard to determine.

You can also look at valerian root as just one part of your dog’s treatment plan. “The goal is to improve your dog’s quality of life through reduction of stress and anxiety,” McFaddin says. “In many instances, one herbal or nutritional supplement is not enough. Polypharmacy, the use of multiple lower doses of medications and supplements, may provide the best and safest outcome for your furry family member.” 

A valerian root supplement may be a good option for certain anxiety-provoking situations like trips to the vet, thunderstorms, and travel. Be open to incorporating behavioral modification or other herbs, nutritional supplements, and medications in conjunction with the valerian root. Start by discussing supplementation with your dog’s vet and investing in a trusted brand. If used correctly, valerian root may help take the edge off your dog’s anxiety. 

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Anxiety and Compulsive Disorders in Dogs

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in Dogs

Compulsive disorder is characterized by a repetitious, relatively unchanging sequence of activities or movements that has no obvious purpose or function. Although the behavior is usually derived from normal maintenance behaviors (such as grooming, eating, and walking), the repetitive behavior interferes with normal behavioral functioning. It is referred to as “OCD” or “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”

The most commonly observed obsessive-compulsive behaviors are spinning, tail chasing, self-mutilation, hallucinating (fly biting), circling, fence running, hair/air biting, pica (appetite for non-food substances such as dirt, rocks or feces), pacing, staring, and vocalizing. Some dogs also show the potential for aggression.

No breed, gender or age of dog is more likely to have obsessive-compulsive disorders, although the specific type of OCD displayed may be affected by breed, such as spinning as opposed to self-mutilation. As with other anxiety disorders, onset of OCD begins early, around 12 to 24 months of age, as the dog developmentally matures (generally defined as occurring at 12 to 36 months of age in dogs). If you are observing early signs of obsessive behavior in your dog, and it is descended from a line where other dogs are affected, early intervention is critical.

Symptoms and Types

  • Signs of self mutilation – missing hair, raw skin, focus is commonly on the tail, forelimbs, and distal extremities
  • The dog’s behavior intensifies over time and cannot be interrupted even with physical restraint, increases in frequency or duration, and interferes with normal functioning
  • Frequent tail chasing, especially if the tail tip is missing (however, not all dogs that tail chase will mutilate their tails)
  • May be seen in young dogs, but onset is more common during social maturity; playfulness decreases with age, OCD increases
  • A solitary focus may have seemed to spur the behavior (for example, chasing a mouse that the patient could not catch) – but usually no direct cause is evident
  • May see self-induced injuries and lack of condition that may be associated with increased motor activity and repetitive behaviors
  • Behavior worsens with time

Causes

  • Illness or painful physical condition may increase a dog’s anxieties and contribute to these problems
  • Kenneling and confinement may be associated with spinning
  • Degenerative (for example, aging and related nervous-system changes), anatomic, infectious (primarily central nervous system [CNS] viral conditions), and toxic (for example, lead poisoning) causes may lead to signs, but abnormal behavior likely is rooted in primary or secondary abnormal nervous system chemical activity

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam on your dog. You will need to give a thorough history of your dog’s health, including a background history of symptoms, any information you have about your dog’s familial line, and possible incidents that might have precipitated the behavior. Your veterinarian will order a blood chemical profile, a complete blood count, an electrolyte panel and a urinalysis in order to rule out underlying physical causes or disease.

urinalysis

An in-depth examination of the properties of urine; used to determine the presence or absence of illness

pica

A type of ravenous appetite that causes animals to eat or lick at strange substances

efficacy

The extent to which a drug is effective

distal

The furthest distance from the middle or the top of a body

gastrointestinal

The digestive tract containing the stomach and intestine