By Jillian Downer
In the last decade, canine prescription drugs have begun to mimic that of human prescription drugs, with more and more medications being developed to chemically modify health and behavior in dogs. Scientists who specialize in canine health and biology, along with animal behaviorists and veterinarians, are hard at work expanding their knowledge of behavioral pharmacology for dogs, and they believe that drug therapy in conjunction with behavior modification and training will help to alleviate the rate of abandonment, over-population and even euthanasia. The Food and Drug Administration is approving weight-loss and anti-obesity drugs, medications that treat cognitive degeneration and even doggy Prozac at increasing rates, approving 40 new medications since 2004. But it’s not just medications for health that are being used at increasing rates; dogs are also receiving treatments that used to be reserved exclusively for humans, like chemotherapy for tumors, root canals on rotting teeth and even animal liposuction.
Americans spent over $49 billion on the care and maintenance of pets in 2007, an amount that has increased by 50 percent in just eight years. In fact, pet products are one of the largest growing consumer industries, second only to electronics. This expansive growth is due in part to our growing humanization of dogs, but it is more closely related to this practice being accepted on a world level. Dogs were once viewed as loyal household workers and the No. 1 priority to these owners was obedience, but humans no longer see the difference between a human and a dog. Nowadays, affection far outweighs that of obedience. This change in owner behavior has modified the direction of the pet industry, leading to the mass production of pet pharmaceuticals, with over one third of all dog-care costs going to health care.
Canine prescription drugs aren’t typically designed specifically for dogs. In most cases, they are identical to the human medication, but labeled with canine friendly names and flavored to appeal to a dog. For example, the only difference between the human antidepressant Prozac and the canine equivalent, Reconcile, is that Reconcile is chewy and tastes like some form of meat. While it may be true that dogs can suffer from conditions relative to the anxiety, depression and degeneration in humans, it is difficult to know if the drugs used in the treatment of these human conditions are also affective, and more importantly, safe, in dogs. Studies show that more than half of the dogs in experimental drug programs experienced some side effects, ranging anywhere from flu-like symptoms and depression to loss of appetite and general lethargy.
More than 20 percent of canines in the United States are overweight, which makes marketing anti-obesity medication for dogs an easy strategy for pharmaceutical companies. Dogs also live longer than they did in the past, an average of 15 years, which delivers the argument that old dogs may need medication to help with dog senility and cognitive dysfunction. An estimated 14 percent of American dogs suffer from separation anxiety, which is one of the most destructive problems when it comes to behavior training and obedience. Pet owners have become increasingly more involved in the lives of their pets, and the parental-like bond that forms from this attachment creates a breeding ground for paranoia, which ultimately leads to chemical intervention.
Professor and Program Director for the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Science at Tufts University, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, is arguably the father of animal pharmacology and the leader in the field today. Dodman was a veterinarian in England who moved to the United States in 1981. He began his career writing behavioral health books for dogs and began to grow increasingly more interested with veterinary behavioral medicine, so much so that at a veterinary conference in the late 1980s he presented his theory on the benefits of animal pharmacology. Making the claim that the limbic systems of all mammals are biologically similar, Dodman argued that it is very possible for humans and dogs to have similar physiological responses to things like sadness and fear.
Animal pharmacology has its supporters and skeptics. Animal behaviorist and veterinarian Dr. Ian Dunbar said in an interview with “The New York Times” that he believes medical intervention for animals shows disturbing parallels to a human’s approach to health care. Animals have little control over their environment and nurturing. For example, if a dog is suffering from weight problems, it isn’t necessary to employ the help of an anti-obesity drug, but rather the more simple approach of feeding the dog less. Dr. Jean Donaldson, on the other hand, is a proponent of canine prescription medicines. While Donaldson, director for the San Francisco branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), believes that many canine behavior problems are a symptom of poor training and nurturing from human owners, she also believes that poor ownership shouldn’t be a reason for a dog to suffer. She argues that if medicine can help a neglected animal deal with anxiety, there is no reason it should not be used.