Treating Behavior Problems in Dogs (cont.)

Medicines for the Treatment of Sudden or Severe Fear and Panic

Some dogs experience fear only in specific situations, such as during fireworks or other events with loud noises. The benzodiazepines can help in these situations by reducing fear as needed right when these situations occur. Benzodiazepines take effect quickly, so they can treat impending fear within a short period of time-the same way an aspirin relieves a headache shortly after you take it. In contrast, most other drugs for alleviating fear need to be taken daily for several weeks before they produce results-just like antibiotics need to be taken a few days before they begin to fight bacteria. A minor drawback is that BZs must be given to the dog before the fearful event begins. Optimally, the medicine should be given one hour before the beginning of the scary event, or at minimum, it should be given before the dog shows any signs of fear or worry, such as stress panting, trembling, tail tucking, pupil dilation, sweating paw pads, etc.

Some common benzodiazepines are diazepam (Valium®), alprazolam (Xanax®), chlordiazepoxide (Librium®), lorazepam (Ativan®) and clonazepam (Klonopin®). Benzodiazepines work by increasing the activity of a chemical in the brain that interferes with activation of the fear networks.

Dose Effects

You can only know if a drug is working if you have an idea of what effects to expect. The following list provides the expected reactions in dogs to different doses of benzodiazepines:

  • At low doses, benzodiazepines ramp down excessive behavior and reduce excitability.
  • At moderate doses, benzodiazepines reduce anxiety. Dogs who are afraid will be less fearful and more likely to act normally. At these doses the drug can also increase friendly and interactive behavior.
  • High doses of benzodiazepines produce sedation, including impaired movement and thinking, and disorientation. They also produce sleepiness and cause vomiting. Benzodiazepines affect some of the same parts of the cells in a dog's brain as alcohol, and so they produce similar effects.

Side Effects

Benzodiazepines have some unwanted side effects, including increased appetite and sleeplessness. Sleeplessness may seem contradictory, but this medicine can actually produce increased anxiety in some dogs. Although not common, this side effect seems to occur most often when the medicine is given after the dog has already begun to show signs of anxiety.

Benzodiazepines are also inappropriate for the treatment of aggression, because they can sometimes reduce inhibition. This means that although the dog may not react as quickly to a frightening or disturbing event, if he does react he might behave aggressively. Lastly, benzodiazepines can cause addiction if they are given many times a day for more than three weeks.

Benzodiazepines can also interfere with learning and memory, so they aren't good choices for long-term use with training and behavior modification. Because of this, if a benzodiazepine is necessary because of excessive anxiety or fear, this type of medicine is best used initially and then gradually discontinued.

Health Issues

Benzodiazepines are metabolized in the liver and excreted through a dog's kidneys, so if your veterinarian advises you to treat your dog's fear with a benzodiazepine, she should check with a simple blood test to make sure that these organs are working well before beginning treatment. If your dog has had problems with his kidneys or liver, be sure to let your veterinarian know.