The bond between humans and our pets is a powerful one that dates back millennia. Over the centuries dogs have integrated themselves within our human families, providing companionship, protection, assistance, and love. But dogs, like humans, can suffer from mental health issues, and often use the same medications to treat them.
The Mental Health Benefits of Dog Ownership
Owning a dog is great for your health. Not only do dogs help us stay active and alert, they provide an invaluable connection that reduces stress and boosts our mood. Here are just a few ways dogs help us maintain our mental health:
- Dogs keep us mentally sharp. Playing with your dog daily helps you stay emotionally connected and mentally agile.
- Dogs reduce stress. From the antics of puppies to the loving cuddles of an older dog, our connection to our pets lowers stress levels. Sharing playtime with our pets boosts oxytocin (the happiness hormone) and serotonin.
- Dogs reinforce empathy. Our dogs are boundless sources of love, and interacting with them helps bolster our empathy.
- Dogs get us moving. A lot of mental and emotional health depends on physical wellbeing. Our pets get us out of the city and into the woods, where we can experience life at a more measured pace.
Why Do Dogs Need Anxiety Medication?
Dogs, like humans, can suffer from anxiety, and there are several reasons why this may be so.
Emotional trauma is not uncommon in dogs that have suffered prior abuse. A previously abused animal might develop aversions to people, places, or things that trigger a post-traumatic stress response. For example, an abused dog might be less trusting, more withdrawn, or have aversions to chains, crates, or objects that recall their abuse.
Separation anxiety commonly occurs in dogs and is triggered when the pet is left home alone. Being separated from its owner, or even from another companion animal, the dog experiences anxiety, which can build as the period of separation grows. Unmedicated animals suffering from separation anxiety have been known to destroy bedding, furniture, and even doors and molding during episodes.
Situational anxiety occurs when a pet is unable to escape an unpleasant or stressful environment. For example, many dogs experience severe anxiety when exposed to loud noises such as fireworks or thunder. Episodes can be very difficult on the animals and often vets will prescribe medications to be used to calm your pet as needed.
Generalized anxiety. Like some people, some dogs are simply more anxious than others. Dogs with generalized anxiety may seem jumpy, skittish, shy, or snarly. They may retreat from situations that challenge them. And many require long-term medication to successfully manage their anxiety.
Common Human and Dog Anxiety Medications
Humans and dogs share a mammalian brain, so it’s not entirely surprising that some medications that have proven effective against anxiety in humans might also work for dogs. Here are some commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications prescribed to both dogs and humans.
Buspirone (sold under the brand Buspar) has a mild sedative effect and has the added benefit of elevating serotonin levels. Buspirone is often prescribed for generalized anxiety, and is often paired with other medications. Buspirone is not a rescue remedy. The drug needs time to achieve therapeutic levels in the blood, so it is seen as a long-term anxiety management solution.
Dexmedetomidine (sold under the brand Sileo) is an alpha-2 agonist that inhibits release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which initiates the fight-flight response to stress.
Diazepam (sold under the brand Valium) is a benzodiazepine that works with brain chemistry to promote relaxation. The drug is also effective as a muscle relaxant, anti-seizure med, and appetite stimulant. Diazepam is fast-acting and can be used to treat situational anxiety or as a rescue during panic episodes.
Alprazolam (sold under the brand Xanax) is a fast-acting, short duration benzodiazepine that has proven effective in treating situational anxiety.
Lorazepam (sold under the brand Ativan) is a benzodiazepine that produces a calm and sedating effect. The drug has proven effective in the treatment of phobias and situational anxiety, but should not be given to dogs with a history of liver disease or damage.
Dog Anxiety Medication Safety Concerns
While the same medications are often used to treat anxiety in humans and animals, it’s essential to note that human and veterinary medications are not interchangeable. Veterinary dosage levels, for example, would be calculated in proportion to your pet’s weight. For example, a dosage appropriate for a 7-pound Chihuahua would be less than that prescribed to a 110-pound Akita. Similarly, human dosages are often too high to be safe or healthy for our pets. As a general rule, it’s recommended that you not share any medications with your pets. If you run out of your pet’s prescription medication, call your veterinarian for refills. They will be able to answer your questions about your pet’s prescription and about what substitutions (if any) are safe.