There is not a week that passes without someone contacting me about their dog having anxiety issues. Just like human health care, anxiety issues are escalating and the pharmaceutical industry is booming in pet health care. Anxiety is not something new, but with more and more people focused on anxiety problems, there is an awareness of it existing in their dogs and they want something done about it.
One of the main problems that I see in veterinary medicine, and I suspect that it is the same in people, is that we tend to bunch a lot of different emotional disturbances under the conceptual disease, anxiety. The field of behavior medicine in pet health care originated when I was in vet school. Dr. Bonnie Beaver was the first recognized behavior specialist and she was at our vet school in Texas. Boy, did we have fun watching her tap into this new mindset.
It didn’t take long for the pharmaceutical industry to jump in and give us something to treat these dogs with. Prozac was the standard treatment for anxiety in people, so they grabbed a few beagles, gave them the drug for a couple of weeks, none of them died, and they released it for the treatment of anxiety in the dog. The rest is history. Nothing has basically changed other than a few new drugs that basically do the same thing.
Unfortunately, emotional and behavior disturbances like agitation, nervousness, fear biting, separation anxiety, fly strike behavior and many other disturbances are all wrapped up into one clinical problem we call anxiety. And, we have Prozac as the answer. It should not be a surprise that most dogs do not respond well to the treatment and often these drugs make things worse.
In humans, treating anxiety started with a group of drugs called psychotropic drugs. Valium was the first successful drug for helping people with this mental problem. Unfortunately, over 10 million people got addicted to valium, so it sort of lost its popularity in time. Since then, the pharmaceutical companies have scrambled for the best drugs for this multi-billion dollar industry. Unfortunately, none of these drugs come without serious potential side effects. The same is true for using them in pets. Since then, there have been many forms of drugs to help with the symptoms of anxiety, all looking to be slightly different and slightly better in effect. None without side effects.
All of these drugs do similar things; alter brain chemistry, particularly the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These chemicals affect brain circuits, which are directly related to our moods and our pet’s moods.
According to medical researchers, this is what they say, “We really don’t know what causes depression or how it affects the brain. We don’t exactly know how antidepressants improve the symptoms.” Ouch. Pretty unstable scientific research for helping over 40% of the human population with diagnosed clinical anxiety or depression. And, we clinicians like to base our confidence in what is scientifically proven.
Imagine that you have a dog with a diagnosis of separation anxiety that gets upset when it is left alone. Imagine that you have another dog that has difficulty sleeping at night, paces and is anxious. Imagine that you have a third dog that is hypersensitive to loud noises, gets nervous and agitated around small children and urinates in the house. Now, imagine that your vet give you Prozac to treat each one of them. That is likely what would happen if this were real. Can you start to see how our current approach to anxiety in pets is poor at best?
From a holistic perspective, we find that if we look at all possibilities, we have a much better chance of restoring normal behavior to the dog. Why not start with food? Research suggests that folate deficiency is often found in individuals with anxiety. That is interesting, especially when we find that chronic insidious inflammation in the gut in dogs (IBD, leaky gut, etc) is often accompanied with folate deficiency. Most dogs fed heat-processed pet food have chronic bowel inflammation.
Research has also pointed to the fact that chronic gut inflammation and leaky gut syndrome in dogs leads to inappropriate digestion of amino acids leading to abnormal chemicals being absorbed through the bowel. These chemicals move into the blood system, pass the blood-brain barrier and go straight to the brain, often causing agitation, irritability and even seizures.
Another common deficiency found in dogs with chronic bowel inflammation is cyanocobalamin (B12) deficiency. The water soluble vitamin is absolutely required for normal brain function and is often used as a supplement in people with emotional disorders.
Recent research indicates that both rabies and distemper vaccination can cause vaccinosis disease, where the vaccine can cause chronic symptoms that mimic the disease. Both of these diseases have a direct effect on brain function that could display symptoms of anxiety and agitation.
In my practice, about 70% of the anxiety problems in senior dogs were due to side effects of drugs that they were taking for other medical problems. NSAIDs like Rimadyl and Metacam as well as Proin for urinary incontinence were often the cause. Many household toxins as well as environmental stress can often play a major role in emotional and behavioral imbalances in dogs. Many internal organ diseases create biochemical imbalances that affect the brain chemistry and the emotional symptoms. Liver and kidney dysfunction are common causes. The fact that dogs are pack animals that don’t do well being along is another factor.
Anxiety, as well as other emotional and behavioral problems in dogs is a growing part of pet health care. Lumping them into one conceptual disease and opting for potentially dangerous drug therapy is not the way to address this pet health problem. Find someone who will take the time to look at everything that could be causing these problems in your dogs and there is a good chance that it will could be resolved for good.