Understanding the Beast Within

Behavioral therapy and anti-depressants are just two of the treatments being used in the growing field of pet mental health.

February 21, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

When the FDA recently approved an anti-depressant for animals, some dog owners breathed a sigh of relief -- much as some parents did when they learned that Ritalin would help treat their children's hyperactivity.

Maybe a drug called Clomicalm could bring an end to their dog's incessant barking, chewing and other destructive behavior associated with what's being labeled "separation anxiety" in animals.

The approval of Clomicalm, though, is just the latest advance in a growing and profitable field geared to treating pets' mental health.

Animal behaviorism is one of the cutting-edge specialties in veterinary medicine today. And even old-school vets are becoming more knowledgeable about treating symptoms like aggression, fear and depression in their four-legged patients.

Experts in the field believe animals suffer from some of the same emotional and psychological problems that humans do. Their solution is to treat these pets in the same ways a doctor might treat a human: with a little counseling and perhaps some medication.

And owners are willing to spend the money -- no, they are demanding to spend money -- on treating psychological disorders, just as they might put their children in therapy or on drugs. (And as with children, some people argue against putting pets on drugs indefinitely to make life easier.)

"We see a lot of people who don't have children," says Dr. Earnest Jacques of the Howard County Animal Hospital. "Pets take their place. They will do more for them as a family member."

It can be a costly solution -- a certified animal behaviorist, of which there are only about 35 in the country, might charge $80 an hour to consult with pet owners and come up with a diagnosis.

But one fact can't be argued: Pets' lives are being saved because of it.

When owners can't cope with the house soiling, constant barking or other symptoms of what may be neuroses in their pets, they often get rid of their animals. Behavior problems are the leading cause of death in cats and dogs -- more than all infectious diseases combined, says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, a group that certifies specialists in behavior.

"They are put down in droves," agrees Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of "Dogs Behaving Badly" (Bantam, 1999) and other best-selling books on animal behaviorism. "But now something can be done about it in the majority of cases."

Dodman is a professor and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts. His patients come from as far away as Indiana. Dodman believes animals think, are probably self-aware and suffer from many of the same problems humans do; and many pet owners would be quick to agree.

Tufts offers a "Petfax" service, which Dodman says has almost as high a success rate as a visit to the school's clinic. Clients fill out a detailed form about their pet's problem and fax it in. For a $118 fee, they get a written, detailed response within three or four days. Afterward they have a two-month call-in period to speak directly to a veterinarian.

But because some behavior problems have medical causes, a visit to your own vet is the best place to begin. If your cat Marbles is using the rest of the house as her litter box, it may be because she has a urinary tract infection, or because she resents the new kitten -- or maybe she just doesn't like the current brand of kitty litter. Your vet will help you figure out the answer.

Dr. Marian Siegel, a local veterinarian at the Metropolitan Cat Hospital Ltd. in Owings Mills, uses both behavior counseling and drugs to treat her patients. She has put cats on clomipramine (the generic name for Clomicalm) with some success, including a cat who attacked, bit and hissed at the four other cats in the household. She calls it turning them into "California kitties. They need to chill out a bit."

She combines the use of drugs with behavior modification, but points out that the problem can be as much a matter of owner training as pet retraining. The cat or dog can't be put on the couch to say what's bothering him; the behavior being modified is often the owner's. He's the one who has to learn to interact with the dog only when he's calm, or move the litter box to a place that's acceptable to the cat.

"Chemical intervention with behavioral consultation is usually successful," she says, "At least to the point where the owner says, 'I can live with this.' "

In spite of the attention focused on Clomicalm, using drugs to treat animals' psychological problems isn't a new phenomenon. In 1994 the hot topic of the annual meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association was that vets were starting to prescribe Prozac for their patients. For years veterinarians have been using human drugs like Elavil, Valium and clomipramine. The recent FDA approval makes vets more comfortable about safety issues with Clomicalm; but there is still a risk of side effects such as nausea, diarrhea and lethargy.

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