by Kelsey Pettit
Fluoxetine, better known by the trade name Prozac™, has been used for many years as a medication for human depression. Less well known is the use of fluoxetine in the veterinary field as a treatment for aggression and other behavioral issues.
Fluoxetine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Instead of serotonin resorption into nerve endings in the brain, the SSRI function allows the chemical to remain longer. Serotonin is often thought of as the “feel-good” hormone, but is involved in many different processes in the brain, including memory, learning, and reward responses. Higher serotonin concentration in the brain softens aggression in some animals.
Anxiety in dogs can interfere with learning mechanics in the brain. Serotonin levels may be lower in animals with anxiety but are important for learning and cognition. Anxiety may be difficult to mitigate through obedience training or socialization alone.
Psychiatric drugs are oftentimes used in shelter medicine to alleviate certain behaviors. Whether an animal previously lived in a home, or has been stray its whole life, an animal shelter is drastically different from the animal’s “normal.” It is for that reason that dogs and cats can exhibit behavioral and personality changes while at a shelter.
Kennel stress can lead to stereotypical behaviors. For dogs, stereotypies include constant barking and jumping at the kennel door, persistent licking of the hair coat, pacing, spinning, and prolonged panting. A drug called trazodone can often help a portion of these animals find reprieve from these anxious behaviors. Trazodone is slightly different from fluoxetine: it not only increases serotonin, but also blocks certain receptors in the brain, creating a slight sedative effect.
For cats, the shelter environment tends to cause a different set of stress-linked behaviors. Many cats retreat in the shelter, refuse to use a litter box, or will not eat. The best way to resolve these depressive behaviors is to adopt the cat into a home. However, sometimes, cats display elevated signs of aggression in the shelter. In these cases fluoxetine can be beneficial. Fluoxetine has, historically, been prescribed to cats with certain psychosomatic behaviors like self mutilation and inappropriate elimination (soiling outside of the litter box). The drug has had mostly positive results for treating these behaviors in some patients.
The use of behavioral drugs can help some animals while they are temporarily in the shelter environment. As agents of humane treatment of animals, shelters should focus not only on the physical needs of animals, but also the psychological well-being of those in their care. Some animals are only mildly affected by shelter life, while some are devastated by the new changes. Psychiatric drugs can offer animals relief while in the care of shelters. However, medication can only do so much. The only way for animals to recover from the psychological disruption of the shelter is to no longer be in a shelter. It is the hope that drug intervention can help them find solace in the meantime.
Brooks, Wendy. “Fluoxetine (Prozac).” Veterinary Partner, 19 February 2008. https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4952744
Dodman, Nicholas. “Fluoxetine in the form of Reconcile is approved by the FDA for treatment of separation anxiety.” Veterinary Practice News, 4 April 2013. https://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/fluoxetine-treats-a-number-of-behavioral-issues-in-animals/
Foss, Tamara. “Trazodone in Veterinary Medicine.” Today’s Veterinary Nurse, May/June 2017. https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/articles/trazodone-in-veterinary-medicine/
Reisner, Ilana. “The Use of Medications in Canine Behavior Therapy.” Today’s Veterinary Practice, July/August 2014. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/on-your-best-behavior-q-a-the-use-of-medications-in-canine-behavior-therapy/