New Recommendation for Fear-Based Behavior Problems

Another option for helping dogs cope with storm phobias and other fears.

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In May, I attended a seminar given by noted veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, section head and program director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. The seminar, “The Well Adjusted Dog: Secrets to Understanding Canine Behavior,” covered a number of behavior problems, including aggression, separation anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and canine compulsive behavior. I was most interested in his recommendations for dogs with sound sensitivities, having had a dog whose severe noise phobias eventually degenerated into generalized anxiety disorder, from which she never really recovered (see “Chill Pills,” Whole Dog Journal July 2006).

Anti-Anxiety Drugs for Dogs

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One of the important things I learned is that Dr. Dodman now recommends clonidine instead of alprazolam (Xanax) when quick-acting help is needed for dogs with storm and other noise phobias. He prefers clonidine due to the high frequency of paradoxical excitement he sees in dogs treated with alprazolam, and because it is non-addictive, unlike alprazolam. He calls clonidine his “new favorite secret weapon” for treating storm phobias and other fear-based behavior problems, including separation anxiety and fear aggression.

Clonidine is an alpha-2 agonist; “agonist” is the opposite of “antagonist,” meaning it mimics or increases the effects. Used to treat high blood pressure in humans, clonidine acts in the central nervous system to inhibit the release of norepinephrine (related to adrenaline), a modulator of the “fight or flight” response. According to Dr. Dodman, this drug has few side effects, with sedation being the most common. Because of its effects on blood pressure, it should not be used for dogs with severe cardiovascular or renal disease.

Clonidine can be combined with other drugs used for treating fear and anxiety, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac, Reconcile), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), such as clomipramine (Clomicalm). Due to the cumulative effect on blood pressure, caution should be used when combining with beta-blockers, digitalis, or calcium channel blockers. Like all of these other drugs, it should not be combined with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), such as selegiline (Anipryl, l-deprenyl) and amitraz (Mitaban, also used in Preventic collars).

Clonidine is a short-acting drug, and so is best used for dogs who need only occasional relief, or combined with other longer-acting drugs, such as Prozac or Clomicalm, as needed for additional effectiveness in treating separation anxiety and other fear-based behavior problems. Because of Prozac’s safety margin, Dr. Dodman now prefers a combination of Prozac and clonidine rather than clomipramine and alprazolam for treating fear-based behavior problems.

Dr. Dodman recommended dosages up to 0.05 mg/kg clonidine (about 1 mg for a 40-pound dog) as needed or twice a day, but would start with 0.01 to 0.02 mg/kg and increase as needed. The drug takes effect in about half an hour, and lasts for three to four hours. If used long-term, it should be weaned off to avoid a spike in blood pressure.

Dr. Dodman also uses melatonin for storm phobias. He says he gives the standard human dosage, 3 milligrams, to dogs weighing 40 to 60 pounds, but will increase that amount to 6 or even 9 milligrams as needed. Melatonin is a hormone that is very safe to use; he said you couldn’t poison a dog with melatonin if you tried. It can be combined with other behavior-modifying drugs as needed.

Medications can provide the help that is needed for behavior modification therapy to work. Behavior problems respond better and more quickly when treated with a combination of behavior modification and drug therapy. For those who need more help, Tufts offers remote behavioral consultations through its PETFAX and VETFAX services.

I wish I started drug therapy for my dog earlier and more aggressively; it might have prevented her phobic behavior from escalating until it ruined her life. I encourage anyone whose dog shows increasing fear-based behavior to explore drug therapy. Don’t make the mistake I did of not wanting to “drug” your dog; the right behavior medication can improve quality of life and allow your dog’s natural personality to reemerge.

– Mary Straus

For more information:
Tufts PETFAX and VETFAX Behavior Consultation
(508) 887-4640; tufts.edu/vet/behavior

6 COMMENTS

  1. Check your math and dosages again! 1mg clonidine for a 40lb dog would surely be lethal, humans start out with 0.1 to 0.3mg of clonidine, which is a MUCH smaller dose for a much bigger animal.

    • Amy, different species often process drugs quite differently, leading to wide disparities in dosing recommendations. Dogs sometimes need lower dosages than humans, sometimes higher, depending on the drug. Frequency can also vary. I checked my math VERY carefully! You can see more of my references on my website here:
      http://dogaware.com/articles/wdjanxiety.html

  2. I was surprised when with our previous dog that 10 mg-15 mg of valium/diazepam worked great for an 85-pound golden retriever with severe fear of lighting and thunderstorms. At the same time, our vet said 10 mg of clonazepam would not be enough. There are books to look up these dose but I don’t have one. Does anyone have success with /CBD oil for predictable stressors like thunderstorms? Susan KP

  3. Our problem is that although we have tried to reduce stressors for a 9-year-old rescue English setter named Lily, who was a “breeder” and then given to the pound when too old. Lily is afraid of fast or sudden movements, being startled awake even by soft petting. It is hard to know whether to stop petting if she falls asleep or not. My adult daughter, who lives with us, and does part of the walking, half of the feeding and most of the training had the most recent problem. About once every 2 weeks, our dog will suddenly snap. This happens when one of us moves and the dog seems to startle at a movement she would have ignored or even liked (petting) an hour before. The most recent incident occurred when my adult daughter thought she had our dog’s attention,

    My daughter called Lily’s name, moved her arm slowly towards her, started petting and the dog seemed to acknowledge her, and then when my daughter started to pet her Lily suddenly snapped at her face. This happens about once every 14 days to one of us. We haven’t found some but not all of her triggers. Incidents like this last one are making it harder for my daughter and husband to bond with her.

    Any suggestions?

    • This is not the sort of problem that is going to be solved by email. You need someone knowledgeable to evaluate your dog’s behavior. I would start with a complete vet check, in case she’s reacting to pain and to make sure she doesn’t have something like hypothyroidism affecting her behavior (http://dogaware.com/articles/wdjhypothyroid.html). If your vet can’t find anything, then I would consult with a certified behaviorist (be sure they use only positive methods, as any form of punishment would likely escalate the aggression). You can find reliable professionals here:
      https://m.iaabc.org/consultant/

  4. Thank you. We went to the vet in the first two weeks. I did suggest a thyroid test but he didn’t think it necessary. The link you sent is just what I was looking for. Susan

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