Common Pet Behavioral Management Medications
By Kate Boatright, VMD
Some pets coming to your boarding facility may happily arrive for their stay, but others may be more apprehensive and display signs of fear, anxiety or stress. For some pets, their level of anxiety necessitates medication. Recognizing signs of fear, anxiety and stress, and having a basic understanding of common medications pets may be coming to your facility on, can be helpful to keep both your staff and boarding pets safe and maximize client satisfaction.
Signs of Fear, Anxiety & Stress
Pets may display a wide range of behaviors that demonstrate fear, anxiety and stress (FAS). Learning to read the body language of the pets in your care is an essential part of training for all staff. This will ensure both their safety and the safety of the pets they care for. This is especially important in pets who may be so fearful or anxious that they become aggressive.
Canine body language that may indicate FAS in dogs can include tucked tails, showing the whites of the eyes and/or having dilated pupils, flattened ears, crouching toward the ground, lifting the lip and showing teeth, or repetitively licking their lips. In addition, the range of behaviors that dogs may show when stressed in a boarding facility can include cowering in the back of the enclosure, avoiding interaction, barking or panting excessively, drooling, jumping or lunging at the door, pacing or circling in the enclosure, or growling. Some dogs may chew on the enclosure door or destroy bedding material. Dogs who are known to be destructive should not have bedding material in their enclosure to avoid inadvertent ingestion and potential for gastrointestinal obstruction.
Some dogs may also develop what is called stress colitis, or inflammation of the colon, secondary to fear, anxiety and stress. These pets will often present with diarrhea and may also vomit. If a pet in your facility has large amounts of vomiting and diarrhea, they should be evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out other causes, but stress should be a consideration. Current recommendations for stress colitis management include bland diets and probiotics.
Feline body language that indicates FAS includes ears that are out to the side or pinned, dilated pupils, legs pulled tight under the body, arched back, and tail tucked tightly against body or flicking. Cats will sometimes purr when they are nervous as well as happy so it’s important to interpret body language along with the cat’s behavior. Fearful cats may cower in the back of the cage, try to hide under blankets or behind objects, or they may become aggressive and growl, hiss or swat at caretakers.
Medical Interventions for Anxiety
Veterinarians are often consulted about pet behavior, particularly when pets are so anxious they become destructive or aggressive. For many chronic behavioral situations, enrichment and training are recommended, but medical interventions are needed in some cases. If the level of anxiety places the pet at risk of harm, causes destruction of property or creates an unsafe environment for other housemates, medications are often recommended.
There is a range of medical options for the management of anxiety, including supplements, short-acting situational medications and daily maintenance medications. When the trigger of the anxiety is easy to identify and is predictable, situational medications may be chosen. For pets with anxiety due to multiple or unpredictable triggers, a daily maintenance medication may be used. Some pets receive both types of medications. There are also numerous supplements available that pet owners may choose to use in more mild cases of anxiety.
For some pets, an anxiety supplement or nutraceutical may provide enough of a calming effect to create a pleasant boarding experience. There are numerous products available both over the counter and from veterinary clinics. If a pet is on a supplement for anxiety regularly, they should continue it during boarding. Some common veterinary supplements include ComposureTM Pro, Solliquin® and Zylkene®. These supplements generally have a wide range of safety and some can be increased in higher stress situations, such as during a boarding stay.
Other pet parents may use CBD or hemp products. These products vary state to state in availability, and while there are anecdotal reports of positive impacts on reducing anxiety, there is minimal research to back this up. Regardless, these products are widespread and may be brought with some of your boarders, so it is good to be aware they exist.
Another product that can work well to calm cats is Feliway®, a feline pheromone derivative available in many forms including diffusers and sprays. Spraying cages and blankets or having a diffuser in your cat room can help to calm your feline boarders. A similar product is available for dogs called Adaptil® and is available in collar, spray and diffuser forms.
Situational Behavioral Medications
For pets whose anxiety has a specific, predictable trigger, such as boarding, veterinary visits or fireworks and other loud noises, situational medications can be a great option. These medications tend to be effective within an hour or two of administration and have a rather short duration, usually between six and 12 hours.
Ideally, these medications are administered prior to the anxiety trigger and should be started at home before arrival at the boarding facility. Many of these medications have a wide dosage range and each pet can react differently. Some veterinarians will recommend a test dose of the medication at home prior to using it in an anxiety-triggering situation so that the pet’s individual reaction can be monitored and dosing adjustments can be made if needed.
It is important to note that situational medications can have anxiolytic effects, sedative effects or both. Sedatives are most commonly prescribed for pets who are aggressive and pose a risk to those handling them, such as at a veterinarian office or for pets who need to remain calm after a veterinary procedure like a surgery. Ideally, if the pet has anxiety contributing to their behavior, the sedative used should also have anxiolytic effects.
Common situational medications include:
- Trazodone has both sedative and anxiolytic effects. It is most commonly used in dogs, though cats can receive it at well. Typically, it needs to be dosed every 8-12 hours during the boarding stay.
- Gabapentin is a pain medication that can have sedative effects at higher doses. It is most commonly used as a sedative in cats or combined with other medications in dogs.
- Alprazolam is a benzodiazepine medication that is used as an anxiolytic and can be sedating. In rare cases, pets can become more aggressive or hyperactive on it, so test doses at home are strongly recommended. This medication may only last for 4-6 hours after administration.
- Acepromazine is an older sedative that has fallen out of favor for many veterinarians due to its lack of anxiolytic properties. Pets receiving this medication have a potential for low blood pressure, so accidental overdoses can be more serious than with other drugs.
Maintenance Behavioral Medications
For pets whose anxiety has multiple, frequent or unpredictable triggers, daily maintenance medications are recommended. These medications generally are given once or twice a day and take several weeks to reach full therapeutic blood levels. Because of their long onset of action, they would not be prescribed because of an upcoming boarding stay, but pets on daily doses of these medications will need to continue them during their stay. Common maintenance medications include fluoxetine, clomipramine, paroxetine, sertraline, buspirone and amitriptyline.
Managing a Dosing Error
Errors in medication can happen—even to the most careful, well-trained staff. If a dose of a behavioral medication is missed, give the next scheduled dose as planned. In cases of an accidental overdose, monitor the pet closely. The good news is that most behavioral medications are fairly safe, and a double dose is unlikely to cause major harm.
Repeated double dosing or a larger overdose are more concerning. Potential side effects from overdoses can include excess sedation, vomiting and diarrhea, hypersalivation, or agitation and restlessness. In more severe overdoses, tremors, muscle rigidity and seizures can happen. If an overdose has occurred, consult your preferred veterinarian or call a pet-specific poison control hotline for advice.
If a pet in your facility is experiencing significant anxiety that is impairing their wellbeing or putting your staff at risk, it is important to discuss with the owner what should be done during the remainder of the stay or for future stays. Be honest with the owner about the pet’s behavior and suggest they consult with their veterinarian to discus medication options for the future. Ultimately, the pet owner, pet and staff will be happier when highly anxious pets have medication to help keep them calm during their boarding stay.