Should Pet Parents Use Medication for Behavior Problems?

The answer to this question is not a simple yes or no. But rather, a series of questions you can ask yourself that will help you determine if medication is the best option to improve, or correct, your pet’s behavior problems. In order to help you make a decision, I want to cover a few things; typical behavioral problems, the circumstances that can bring out unusual behavior, and the questions you can ask yourself to help you make the right decision for your pet.

Typical Behavioral Problems


Aggression in dogs can be circumstantial or constant. Either way, it is important to understand the underlying reason for the behavior. According to ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, common types of aggressive behavior include: territorial, possessive, protective, or fearful. Once you understand the reasoning behind the behavior, you can work with your veterinarian and a professional trainer to improve the behavior. Many people make the attempt to avoid the circumstances that cause the behavior to arise, however, that isn’t always possible. I will share Charlie’s story as an example:

He was a relatively young Tibetan Terrier-ish mix whose parents were running a daycare out of their home. They had been running this daycare for years. However, as time went on, it became clear that Charlie wasn’t fond of kids. The daycare had started to stress out Charlie. Due to the fact that children often can’t read dog behavior, his parents were concerned that at some point, he would begin acting aggressively toward the kids.

It’s been a few years, so it’s difficult to remember all of the details, but I believe there were a few other indicators that led us to prescribe Fluxotine (anti-anxiety medication for dogs) to ease Charlie’s stress. Not only did the Fluxotine improve Charlie’s relationships with the kids, but it also removed stress in the house which allowed his relationship with his pet parents to flourish. In this case, not only did the medication work well, but it allowed Charlie to stay with his parents despite their current employment situation. The moral of Charlie’s story is that not all aggression should be treated with medication. However, if the circumstances prevent pet parents from removing or avoiding the cause of the aggression, it might be worth a conversation with your veterinarian.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a common problem in dogs and can be such a serious issue that the dog’s behavior can be harmful to their health. This reminds me of a story:

I worked at a shelter and there was this beautiful Alaskan Malamute who had been adopted by the Owner and Manager of the shelter. The only problem was that he had extreme separation anxiety. It was so bad that if she was on the other side of the door, he would do whatever he could to get through that door so he wouldn’t be away from her. Fortunately, she was able to use the resources she had at the shelter to make sure that he was never alone and always looked after.

But what if she had a job that didn’t allow her to keep her dog all the time? This would be the case for many pet parents. In this circumstance, it might have made sense to explore the option of medication to keep a dog with this level of separation anxiety safe.

Fear & Destructive Behavior

What do the two behavioral problems above have in common? Fear. Fear can present in the form of aggression, separation anxiety or just plain destruction. When fear is the underlying factor, medication may be necessary in order to make the pet comfortable enough to begin behavior modification:

“With many problem behaviors related to fear, medication is necessary to reduce the dog’s fear to a level that allows treatment to begin.” – Pets.WebMD

All the above behaviors can be addressed with training as well. However, it’s important to consider your pet’s immediate stress and the severity of the behavior.

Depends on the Situation

Sometimes medication for a behavioral problem is only a situational issue. For example, when I worked at the veterinary hospital, a few patients needed to be prescribed sedatives just to get them to be comfortable within the walls of the hospital. Additionally, I knew quite a few pet parents who provided their pets with sedation or anti-anxiety medication during the 4th of July or other stressful holiday situations.

While not everyone is comfortable with the concept of using medication to alter behavior, medication is something to consider if the behavior is situational as well.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Will medication allow your relationship to flourish?

If a pet is straining relationships in a home, it can be difficult on the whole family. Additionally, it might strain the relationship you have with your pet. If medication can help your pet remain integrated into the family, it just might be the solution. The fact that Charlie (story above) was not brought to the shelter, or a rescue, for his behavioral problem was better for him and arguably better for the entire pet community. Any time a dog or cat is able to stay in their home (assuming their home is safe and they are well taken care of) that is one less pet in the shelter, which is what so many rescues and shelters are working toward.

What if it isn’t a behavior problem?

In the past, I have reminded many pet parents that inappropriate urination is not always a behavior problem. Sometimes, pets are urinating inappropriately because they have a Urinary Tract Infection. It’s important to consider that your dog or cat may be exhibiting symptoms of a disease or condition rather than exhibiting unwanted behavior. Before jumping to conclusions, check with your veterinarian to make sure that the behavior is not a part of a possible health issue.

Have you considered other options?

I want to be clear. I am not saying that you always have to exhaust ALL other options before turning to medication as a solution. Actually, I believe that medication can be the right solution from the get-go at times (see “Fear” above). But, it is an important question to consider for many. Most importantly, you are going to want to know what all of your options are regarding your pet’s health. The best way to find out, is to talk to your veterinarian, and depending on the behavior, also consult the help of a professional trainer.

Are they harming themselves?

Sometimes an unwanted behavior can actually be damaging to a pet’s health. For example, some cats can over groom themselves due to stress, or, as we discussed, dogs can be destructive due to separation anxiety. Medication might help them take the first steps in the right direction before they hurt themselves or their long-term health.

Is your veterinarian involved in this decision making?

Please, please, please consult your veterinarian. On several occasions I have seen families struggle with a pet’s behavioral problems only to find out later than their veterinary could provide a clear and multi-faceted solution.

Now, hop on over to Carol Bryant’s blog, Fidose of Reality for her Dog Mom perspective on this topic.

medicine versus mom

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3 Comment

  1. Reply
    January 7, 2017 at 8:40 am

    Excellent article and very helpful information, thank you! Sometimes I think pet parents are hesitant about exploring the option of the use of medication for behavioral issues because of the perceived stigma (they are “drugging” their dog or cat because it’s the “easy way out”), or because they think the medication will change the personality of their pet, or make them groggy or out of it. Actually, many of these medications are extremely valuable for helping smooth out anxiety issues, which can actually make the pet more happy and interactive, not less. Although they’re not a cure-all for every behavioral issue, when used responsibly (and with the partnership of a good veterinarian), they can make all the difference in the world for some pets.
    Camille recently posted…Why Trying To “Dominate” Your Dog Will BackfireMy Profile

    1. Reply
      January 9, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      I couldn’t agree more Camille! Thank you for your insight! I think as we move away from the “stigma” there will be more opportunities for pet parents to provide their pets with medication options for anxiety. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

  2. Reply
    January 17, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Interesting post, I am strong believer of trying to find alternative and more natural options myself (same applies to us in the house). I think it is still possible to treat naturally but just takes a bit more time so patience is key. It’s too easy to result to medication whether we are talking pets or people and there are other and better ways in my opinion.

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