Medication…when is it time to try?

When is the right time to try medication?  I feel like I hear that a lot either on web boards or in person (though mostly in passing) pretty frequently.  Or I hear the opposite that medicating dogs is the devil and awful.

Unfortunately I really can’t answer that question…the “when is it the time” question.  There is no universal answer and it totally depends on each individual situation.  What I can do is talk you through my experience with making the decision to give one of my cats medication for a behavioral reason.

Meeko and Panther snuggling like they always did

For some background, we adopted Joey in 2006 when he was 7 years old from the humane society–he was there because of a nasty divorce.  We had to put our cat Meeko to sleep in April because of an illness we were not able to resolve before he started to suffer.  Panther, our then 9 year old female cat seemed a bit lonely since she and Meeko were the best of pals so I wanted to bring home an older cat to be her new pal.  I went to the shelter in Aug of 2006 and found Joey on the bottom corner cage he was said to be good with dogs and good with other cats.  We played with him for a bit and he seemed independent and not a huge lap-cat (which is what we were looking for) so we adopted him.

Panther took a while to acclimate to him but he settled in really nicely.  He lived with us beautifully for 2.5 years with no problems.  In spring of 2009 we noticed him spraying in the house… a lot.  We didn’t notice any stray cats and there weren’t any changes in the home.  We checked for a UTI and he was fine.  We invested in Feliway (calming pheromones for cats like DAP is for dogs), made sure to utilize enzymatic cleaners, moved litter boxes around to potentially make them more appealing, and were mindful of changes in routine for him.  We saw a reduction in spraying for sure after just a few days and about 6 weeks later the spraying stopped completely.  There was nary a tail twitch in sight for 10 months.

But again, almost a year to the day, we noticed him spraying again.  We had kept one Feliway diffuser going all year but we plugged in our other 3 and filled them all to make it like a kitty nirvana in our house.  This time it didn’t seem to help much and he continued to spray a lot.  We took him to the vet, checked for a UTI (it was negative) and our vet prescribed a type of steroid that is typically helpful in treating spraying.  We gave the steroids as prescribed in a topical form that was rubbed into his ear (which was pretty cool actually).  We didn’t see a significant change from the steroid use and about 8 weeks after it started, the spraying stopped again.   These first two years he was focusing his spraying efforts on windows, glass doors, and one chair, which indicated to me that it was pretty much territorial marking.

This year, however, was very different.  The previous two years his marking started in early April but this year his spraying didn’t even start until mid-July.  Learning from our mistake (or presumed mistake) previously, we kept 3 Feliway diffusers going for the whole winter in hopes of staving off the spraying.  We prematurely thought we were out of the woods when July rolled around and there were no marking issues.  Unfortunately we were not that lucky and when he started spraying again it seemed very different.  He was spraying our indoor plants, cabinets, interior doors…. pretty much everything he didn’t spray previously and he wasn’t spraying doors/windows.  The drastic change in the pattern of his spraying and the timing had me concerned so we took him into the vet to check for a UTI and to talk about other options–since he was spraying in places we weren’t generally checking, it took us a while to notice it.

Turns out he had a UTI so we started him on antibiotics and hoped this would resolve the spraying since it seemed to be medically induced.  After the course of antibiotics we saw a drastic reduction in spraying but we would still periodically find evidence.  Sometimes it was just once a week, sometimes every other week, it was much less frequent but it was still happening.  We were very lucky that the room he typically marked was hardwood so cleaning was a breeze and it did not retain any smells but he had also marked in the kitchen a few times which was pretty problematic for us.

After a month or so of infrequent spraying, I twice found puddles on the ground that were not typical of spraying.  The latter puddle seemed a little peachy in color so I immediately called the vet thinking another UTI.  We went and he clearly had a UTI but I spoke to the vet about the possibility of utilizing Prozac to curb the spraying since even when he didn’t have a UTI it was still happening.  The vet went through the whole history–litter box situation appropriate, Feliway, regular routine, UTI checked, tried the steroid and agreed the next step would be to give Prozac a try.

Joey’s been on antibiotics and a conservative dose of Prozac for 7 days now and other than not being happy about being medicated, he’s doing really well.  I read all the side effect information and am keeping an eye out for issues but it’s been going really well.

The decision to put Joey on a serious medication was not taken lightly and was only even pursued after reading a well known veterinarian’s results of research (*not the actual research but the vet’s explanation of his research) showing Prozac being an effective treatment in territorial marking in 90% of the cats involved.  Prior to considering a serious medication we made changes to our lifestyle to accommodate him–changing litter box layout and style, keeping a better routine, and letting him spend more time outside on our porch.  We used aromatherapy using Feliway diffusers and spray to try and curb the behavior.  We treated medical issues that may have been causing it and used a topical steroid to try and solve the behavior problem.  When all of our other efforts failed, we broached the subject of Prozac.

I am pretty confident that this is how I would approach using medication for behavior modification for any of my personal dogs.  I would try changing my behavior or the environment, try homeopathic remedies (aromatherapy or music for example), address potential medical reasons (thyroid testing), and if all of those steps still leave the dog unable to cope/work/think, then I would research the possibility of using drugs to take the edge off to do training.

I can’t answer the big question for you but I hope you found some value in reading about my experiences with putting Joey on Prozac.  Oh, and trying to quarter  a tiny Prozac pill his hard!

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About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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5 Responses to Medication…when is it time to try?

  1. You know … I tried *everything* it seemed before I agreed to meds. I really did NOT want to be that girl who gave her dog xanax. But, after talking with our trainer and our vet and then the veterinary behaviorist, I made the decision to put Lilly on meds. It has mad such a difference that I now greatly regret the delay for my own “issues” around using meds. I look back now and see how much Lilly suffered. As you know fro our post today, we’re only using xanax as needed now, and I’ve cut back to just one dose of chlomipramine daily. Because of Lilly’s unique make-up … she will likely be on anxiety meds the rest of her life, but I’m OK with that if it helps her cope in a world she finds very scary.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is such a difficult decision whether or not to medicate, and I’m always glad to see someone else who doesn’t take it lightly.

    Nick and I were totally against behavioral meds too. We once had a dobe with severe separation anxiety, but we refused to medicate him, and instead researched ways to ease the disorder and did our bests to help him, and slowly he started to come around. (unfortunately, he passed unexpectedly not long after we adopted him, so we never got to see him fully cured.)

    Later, we adopted Toby, who was already on anxiety meds, (clomicalm), for issues in the kennel – we immediately weaned him off (under a vet’s direction) and never looked back.

    But then we met Meadow, and no matter what we did to try to help her noise phobia, (including things like behavioral modification techniques, and melatonin, and dap sprays), there was nothing we could do to prevent scary occurrences (cars backfiring, fireworks, thunder), and just one little incident would put her back to square one. We didn’t make the decision lightly, and at first I felt like a failure by medicating her (prozac), but to see the changes in her now, and how happy and much more relaxed she is, I’m so glad we decided to give it a try. Sure, she still gets frightened of noises, but she snaps out of her fears now, where before, a scary noise would make her retreat into her shell for days.

  3. Ettel says:

    Great post. I’m in the middle of a series on separation anxiety and will soon cover medication, which was a huge decision for me and Charlie. For a long time I didn’t want to “go there” but it was a huge stepping stone for us and he’s currently on his way to being weaned onto a really tiny, tiny dose. And I feel your pain as far as quartering those darn pills!

  4. Tania says:

    Two out of three of my dogs on behavioral medication and I wish there was not so much stigma attached to using them. One is on Prozac for separation anxiety and noise phobia developed after going blind from PRA and developing epilepsy. Once I realized what was going on, Prozac was my FIRST choice to treat my dog, rather than a last-ditch effort. Because I have to work all day and he has to be alone, I was not able to use behavior modification to try to solve the problem. His behavior was dangerous to himself and he was clearly miserable. After 8 weeks the Prozac kicked in and the improvement was incredible and after a dosage increase a year later he is starting to act *happy* again! While medication should not necessarily be the go-to solution (it is putting chemicals in your dog’s body after all) it should not always be a last resort either, particularly since studies show that dogs with behavioral issues improve faster with drugs+b-mod vs. b-mod alone.

    My other dog is on an ever-changing combo of drugs to address her generalized anxiety (I am working with a vet behaviorist to try to find a combo that works for her). Her anxiety increased from nervousness around kids at the age of 8 months to the point of not being able to be around any strangers by the age of 3 years. When I realized the issue needed to be addressed rather than just managed we worked with a trainer and did 3 months of b-mod work. When this work was largely unsuccessful, we decided to see what medication could do for her. We have had some good success so far and are hoping to see continued success when we find the right med combo.

    My third dog also has behavior issues (specifically dog-reactivity), but he is not and will not be on meds. His dog-reactivity issues stem from poor impulse control and lack of proper socialization and a learning-based solution is working great for him!

    I guess my main point is, meds that help your pet feel better don’t have to be (and in some cases shouldn’t be) a last resort! A good board certified veterinary behaviorist is a great resource to help you make the decision.

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