Do animals have thoughts and feelings that are similar to our own? Do they experience anxiety, depression, or cognitive dysfunction? According to the New York Times (“Pill-Popping Pets” July 13, 2008), pharmaceutical companies are now formulating human drugs for use in companion dogs and cats. These include behavior modification and lifestyle drugs to treat conditions such as cognitive dysfunction, separation anxiety, depression, mood and behavior disorders, and even obesity. One such drug, Clomicalm® (Novartis), is chemically identical to clomipramine (Anafranil®), the tricyclic antidepressant for humans, however, it was packaged with a picture of a happy, smiling yellow lab on the box. It is approved by the FDA for separation anxiety, but also prescribed off-label for canine compulsive disorders. Another drug, Anipryl® (Pfizer) is used to treat cognitive dysfunction and help the animal with memory loss. Similarly, Reconcile® (Eli Lilly), which is used for separation anxiety, is the same chemical compound as Prozac®, except it is beef flavored and chewable. Currently, most of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers have a companion animal division. It is a very lucrative income stream considering that $15 million was spent on behavior modification drugs in the United States in 2005 alone.
According to Melanie Berson from the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, “as people are seeing more complex and sophisticated drugs for themselves, they want the same quality for their pets.” There is a growing desire to use behavior-modifying medications in order to have more obedient pets and to control their dogs so they don’t act like dogs. “Owners want their pets to be more like little well-behaved children.”
But this issue is more complicated than merely wanting well-behaved, socially adjusted pets. Behavioral pharmacology advocates maintain that the combination of new drug therapies along with progressive training techniques can solve behavioral problems that in the past usually resulted in euthanasia. Aggression in dogs, for example, is a serious problem. It is the primary reason dogs are brought to clinics, taken to shelters, and often even euthanized. Treatment with psychoactive medications is a good alternative to putting down these animals. Dr. Nicholas Dodman from the Tufts University Animal Behavior Clinic explains, “Prozac, a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), prolongs the effects of that neurotransmitter to reduce impulsivity, stabilize moods and lower anxiety.”
Separation anxiety is also a troublesome problem for many dogs. At least 14% of all American dogs have separation anxiety, and it often results in destruction of the home, whining, frantic barking, inappropriate chewing, or sometimes even injury to itself. Dodman claims that although separation-anxiety is believed to have genetic origins, the unnatural lives that people lead and subject their animals to trigger these problems. “A dog that lived on a farm and ran around chasing rabbits all day would be more prone to being stable than a dog living in an apartment in Manhattan.”
But is pharmacological treatment more for the health and well-being of the dog or for the convenience of owners? “A lot of ‘behavior problems’ are actually normal behaviors for the animal. Food guarding and aggression toward strangers boost a dog’s survival rate in the wild but don’t cut it in the living room.” Not everyone, however, believes that drugs are the solution to companion animal behavior problems. According to animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar, although pharmacologic aids may be helpful in some very extreme situations, most cases behavior modification alone is enough. “The rush to the medicine bottle for easily resolved problems . . . shows a disturbing parallel to the human approach to health care. We lead an unhealthy lifestyle and then rely on drugs to correct it.”
The use of psychiatric medicines in treating mood and behavior issues, however, is prompting new questions concerning what exactly separates mankind from animals. What does animal behavioral pharmacology teach us about not only animal minds, but also our own? Is it a coincidence that animal mental illnesses are mirroring those of humans? The causes of behavioral problems and mood disorders are similar for both pets and people—genetics and environment. “Whether cubicle- or cage-bound, we get too little exercise; we don’t hunt, run or play enough to produce naturally mood-elevating neurochemicals. . . . All of the behavioral issues that we have created in ourselves, we are now creating in our pets because they live in the same unhealthy environments that we do. That’s why there is a market for these drugs.”