Pill Bottle
Given the state of the economy, and upticks in home foreclosures and employment rates in the past few years, it may come as no surprise that antidepressants are now the most frequently used medications among Americans between the ages of 18 and 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People may have a lot to be depressed about lately, but why are veterinarians now prescribing antidepressants for pets? Considering the cushy life that many dogs and cats enjoy these days, do they really have anything to be down about?

It’s Not What You Think

Truth is, antidepressants are generally not used for depression in veterinary medicine. Rather, they are prescribed to help treat various underlying anxieties that can lead to behavior problems. And by behavior problems, I’m not talking about your average my-dog-doesn’t-come-when-I-call kind of issue.

I’m talking about complex problems, like the ones that have come through my exam room: a dog who shrieked whenever the silverware drawer was opened, a cat who repeatedly attacked his own tail until it was nothing but a bloody stump, and a rescued dog who constantly cowered and flinched — despite the fact that the canine’s kind-hearted owner spent months sleeping on the floor to earn the dog’s trust.

For these pets, there’s no “magic pill” that can cure their behavior problems. Although training and behavior modification may eventually help them overcome their anxieties, veterinarians may also prescribe medications to help prevent such pets from hurting themselves or damaging property — and to help reduce their anxiety levels long enough to allow them to learn new behavior patterns.

So what kind of behavior problems are we talking about? Here’s a look at five common scenarios in which vets may prescribe pet antidepressants.

Separation Anxiety

Many dogs can become severely distressed when they’re separated from their owners. A classic example of this is when owners leave for work, driving certain dogs to bark incessantly, destroy furniture, chew holes in drywall, urinate in the house and even scratch at the door until their paws are bloody.

Generalized and Acute Anxiety

Pets who were poorly socialized or who had bad experiences as youngsters may have trouble interacting with people and animals — and be fearful of new situations. Others may experience acute anxiety, which can manifest as thunderstorm phobias or a fear of loud noises.

Compulsive Disorders

Pets can display repetitive behaviors that serve no function. Cats with psychogenic alopecia, for example, may groom themselves to the point where their flanks or limbs are completely devoid of hair. Cats can also compulsively pace, yowl or suck on fabrics, such as wool. Compulsive behaviors for dogs include repetitive licking, fence running and tail chasing.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

Older pets, especially dogs, may start to show signs of anxiety associated with an aging brain, as well as appear disoriented, forget housetraining and interact less with the family.

Feline Urine Marking

While most urine marking can be resolved through neutering or spaying a pet, some felines who continue to spray in the house may respond to medication. In cases like these, your veterinarian will examine the pet and recommend diagnostic tests to help rule out underlying medical conditions that can cause the behavior problem.

4 Important Facts About Antidepressants and Pets

No medication is a replacement for training and behavior modification. Prescription drugs may help calm a pet, but they don’t address the underlying problem. Ideally, antidepressants should be used on a short-term basis, so that your pet is more receptive to training. The ultimate goal: Change a pet’s behavior through training, eliminating the need for medication.

Many medications have potential side effects. Your veterinarian may want to perform blood tests before prescribing an antidepressant, as well as run periodic blood tests during treatment to help determine how your pet’s body is tolerating the medication. Be sure to ask your vet what potential side effects are associated with your pet’s medication.

Pets will not change behaviors overnight. With many medications, it may take several weeks or months before you notice changes in your pet’s demeanor.

Some medications may be used off label. What this means is that a drug can be prescribed for a use that has not been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). While veterinarians make recommendations based on the best information available, using drugs off label is not without risks, so you may be asked to sign a consent form authorizing the use of medications in this manner.

For pets with severe behavior problems, antidepressants may help them cope with their anxieties in the short term, but the real key is for owners to possess the patience and determination to provide their pets with the right training — even if it means working with a veterinary behaviorist or a certified trainer. Ultimately, this is what will make pets a lot happier.