Our double standards for dogs when it comes to anxiety

I never knew there was an easy option to make super stressful things less anxiety inducing for a dog – if I had, I’d taken advantage of it much earlier.

Towards the end of her chemo appointments Nell was given two kinds of anxiety meds to be taken before an appointment because she needed to be calm, and no other option was available. Muzzle would only prevent harm to humans but not stop her thrashing around, and no training or counterconditioning would have helped because her fear was accurate and based on real events that were unpleasant. At the right timing and dose, Nell was alert and seemingly normal, yet relaxed and able to handle her emotions about the scary treatment table – it was a huge relief, also for me to not see her in such distress.

I decided I never wanted to put a dog through unnecessary high stress if this option is available – there is very little downside and considerable upside, because even training will not remove all of the fears about the vets (for example).

If you think it does if done properly, you’re invalidating the dog’s emotional experience and there is an ethical question too of how much mildly stressful counterconditioning and training we are going to put a dog through. It’s never going to be a pleasant experience to have a thermometer stuck in your butt, for example.

Today we needed to visit a vet to check out a paw and because she had already been really nervous about me investigating it, I assumed it would be even more stressful to do it at the vets. She usually lets us check them with no problems (even between the pads), but I assumed this was particularly nerve-wracking for reasons unknown to me.

(We’ve also visited vets so infrequently she has few experiences of any kind and half of her life so far has been in COVID times so even practising opportunities have been minimal.)

Knowing what I know, I gave Grace a dose of gabapentin from the stock I had for Nell, with the guidance of the vet. When we were discussing it, they said usually they use it with cats which suggests they would not have even mentioned it as an option for dogs. In other words, when a pet owner asks about anxiety meds for a clinic visit, the default species is feline. In fact, I can imagine just how unusual it is to give to dogs when I observed the reaction of the same vet nurse I’d spoken with on the phone – she was clearly expecting a much more anxious dog to turn up.

Let’s pause to think about that.

I understand why anti-anxiety meds might be relatively commonly used when treating cats. In general, we don’t expect cats to be trained to “behave nicely” at the vets – instead, they let their feelings be known pretty clearly through claws and teeth. So, the meds are given largely for practical reasons to get the job done and veterinary staff’s physical safety.

Do you see the problem yet?

The emotional experience of a cat and dog may well be similarly terrifying, but we expect dogs to be able to override their instincts with the help of training and often by using some kind of coercion – restraining a dog is common, and if they show aggression, the default suggestion is to muzzle them. In short, we expect dogs to NOT react when they’re afraid, just because we ask. That’s what a good dog does, right?

So, it seems that we are making allowances for cats (albeit for good reasons) yet we think dogs should just suck it up. Why is it supposedly OK for dogs to be terrified at the vet even if they are compliant and pose no risk to staff because their fear response is to freeze and shut down?

This is what we would usually call a “good dog” but consider how many humans are scared of the dentist, have a fear of flying or fear of embarrassment? All of these could be termed “irrational” and therefore should be “trained out” from people – instead, all of these people would want to be treated with empathy and compassion.

Statistically speaking, it really is irrational to be afraid of flying because the risk of death is much higher for everyday activities like driving a car – but sometimes even that person needs to fly, and doesn’t have the time or money to spend weeks in therapy to deal with this one issue in their lives that bothers them very infrequently so they ask for medication (or failing that, lean on the soothing effect of alcohol).

Most people would probably think it’s a reasonable solution, all things considered, because their lives are otherwise pretty good and resources being finite, a temporary solution is sufficient. Yet we expect every challenge a dog has with the world to be solved if we just train them enough.

It never, ever occurred to me to even ASK for help, because I thought it was my responsibility as an owner to train the dog so this problem wouldn’t exist and therefore asking for help was a failure as a dog guardian.

My first and foremost job is to care for her physical and mental wellbeing, so asking for help to make the experience less stressful for her is a win-win. Every time the vet visit is NOT terrifying she builds up a repository of evidence that it’s not all that scary and things will hopefully get better.

But… who wins when we think like this? Definitely not the dog.

It doesn’t mean they are drugged up – as you can see from Grace after our appointment. She was a bit scared but then relaxed and leaned on me. Otherwise I might have needed to restrain her etc and that way also damage our relationship. It was relatively smooth and low-ish stress.

So, if your dog gets very anxious at the vets, ask if they can give you a couple of tablets of fast-acting anxiety medication like gabapentin – it’s peak effect is after 2h and then it wears off. There are other options too and they can advise you on those – this just happens to be the one I have experience of.

I wanted to share this so that perhaps someone else is encouraged to ask for help for their dog – it really can be a win-win and there’s no shame in it at all.

Looking normal after the appointment!

Someone mentioned when I posted this in a Facebook group so I want to clarify some things.

Please note I am not a veterinary professional, so you should research this and discuss with your vet but perhaps this will help you ask the right questions!

Prozac is a mood stabilizer so a vet would need to work with a veterinary behaviourist to prescribe it and takes weeks to notice an effect. Gabapentin, on other hand, in an anti-convulsant and analgaesic drug – it works very differently because it’s mostly for seizures and pain, but also for anxiety in lower doses.

It’s a short-acting drug so the effects are gone in max. 24h, with the peak effect around 2h after consumption (the latter I heard from University of Utrecht veterinary pharmacist after asking specifically to get the timing right). There should be no obstacle for prescribing a couple of tablets of it, because it is also used for pain.

A good analogy for me is that a low dose of gabapentin seems to be like the effect of a couple of glasses of wine when stresses of the world fall from your shoulders – but not two bottles guzzled in an hour that would knock you out.

The other option we experienced was in tramadol (has a slightly different name in the NL) but that one has a peak effect of 5-6h according to the UU pharmacist, so perhaps that works better for travel, for example, if you have a reason to transport your dog in the car and they get so anxious it is detrimental to their wellbeing (our friend’s dog would fall into this category).

Ask your vet about different options and don’t forget to check for drug interactions if your dog has other medication (also includes CBD oil) – there’s always a chance of side effects but these two are widely used and the bigger problem of side effects comes into play with long-term use (just like wine!).

Source: https://www.petmd.com/blogs/thedailyvet/dr-coates/2014/may/treating-chronic-pain-dogs-31653

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