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Ask a Vet: Should I seek a pharmaceutical solution to my pet's anxiety problem?

November 16, 2009 |  2:02 pm

Allow us to introduce a new feature here at Unleashed: Ask a Vet. We're excited to have Dr. Heather Oxford of L.A. veterinary hospital California Animal Rehabilitation (CARE) on board to answer your burning questions about your pet's health and well-being. Got a question for Dr. Oxford? Leave a comment on this post, and look for her answer in an upcoming installment of Ask a Vet.

Duster Unleashed: Under what circumstances, if any, would you prescribe medication to deal with a pet's anxiety? Do you recommend any herbal remedies? 

Heather Oxford, DVM: Great question, because anxiety is the second most common reason pets are brought to veterinary behavior specialty practices today! Mild forms of anxiety do occur and are usually easy enough to correct if the cause of anxiety is identified early and the veterinarian and owner work together to help modify the behavior and the environment. 

Behavioral modification, involving teaching the owner the proper way to leave and return without creating anxiety in the pet and teaching the pet to be calm and independent, is key. Managing the environment, such as taking the pet in the car, hiring a pet sitter, confining the pet during the day or even sending the dog to daycare, are good ways to help avoid the situation that makes the pet anxious in the first place. If the anxiety is due to an unavoidable noise phobia like car alarms, smoke detectors, fireworks or thunderstorms, I recommend distracting the pet with music, or games that will divert his/her attention. 

For mild forms of anxiety I find that Dog Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P. by CEVA) is pretty effective at reducing anxiety. This comes in both a diffuser and a collar. I have also had good success using the lavender collars, and Bach's Rescue Remedy either added to the pet's water or three to four drops placed directly on the tongue.

More severe anxiety usually requires all of the above, and then some. Separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety and is a serious problem that can cause the pet to vocalize excessively creating a disturbance to neighbors and other people and pets in the home, destroy property or themselves (scratching, licking, chewing their paws) and even urinate and defecate in inappropriate locations. If the pet is doing any of these things, the pet first needs a thorough physical exam to make sure a medical condition is not the cause. It is best to start drug therapy as soon as the diagnosis is made in order to have the most effective treatment. Pets typically are on the drug for a minimum of six months. The drugs that are used for anxiety can cause several side effects, including vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea and even hyperexcitability in rare cases, and some cannot be used with certain other medications that the pet might already be on. It is important to remember that drugs are not "cure-alls" and will work effectively only if used in conjunction with behavioral modification and environmental management. 

About our vet: Dr. Oxford received her bachelor’s of science degree at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.  She also received a master's of public health degree in epidemiology from Emory University and went on to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She then went to the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine, where she received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree.  She practices at California Animal Rehabilitation and is also certified in veterinary rehabilitation and acupuncture. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Wade, and German shepherd, Tess.

Photo: Seamus the dog takes his stress out on a feather duster.  Credit: CM / Your Scene

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