Prozac for dogs: The pros, cons, side effects and more

Oct. 19, 2018

You love your dogs with all your heart; it’s their “issues” that are the real heartbreaker.

Separation anxiety, obsessive behaviors, thunderstorm phobia — all these things can take a toll on your dog and your household, and if your veterinarian has suggested Prozac as a remedy, you have a decision to make.

Medication like Prozac can help with behavior problems that have been medically diagnosed, says Denise Petryk, an associate veterinarian at Olympia Pet Emergency in Olympia, Washington. It can help treat behavior issues that arise from bad life experiences, like abandonment or abuse, but it’s important to know that Prozac is not a magic wand.

The antidepressant doesn’t work overnight, and it won’t change behaviors that simply annoy you, like dogs jumping on things they shouldn’t or snagging food off a table.

"Prozac for dogs is not for problem behaviors or those things your dog does that bug you,” Petryk says.

To help you decide whether Prozac is right for your dog, we asked experts to explain how it works, the pros and cons of giving it to canines, potential side effects and more.

What is Prozac?

Fluoxetine, the generic name for Prozac, is in the class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are used in people to treat a wide range of anxiety disorders. Over the past several years, it has been used more and more on companion animals to alleviate their anxiety and decrease their destructive anxiety-related behaviors. The psychotropic medication can change your dog's brain action by manipulating its neurotransmitters in a particular way.

How does Prozac work?

As Tufts Professor Emeritus Nicholas Dodman explains it, Prozac delays the body’s reuptake of serotonin — a monoamine neurotransmitter thought to stabilize mood and contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness — resulting in serotonin persisting longer when it is released. In other words, it’s a serotonin enhancer. This process can thereby help combat things that trouble your dog, like anxiety and depression.

What is Prozac prescribed for?

Costing about $4 a month for a medium-sized dog, Prozac can be used to treat the following:

  • Aggression

  • Separation anxiety

  • Thunderstorm phobia

  • People phobia

  • Generalized anxiety

  • Compulsive disorders

  • Urine marking

Most commonly, Prozac is prescribed for dogs with separation anxiety — the sometimes debilitating or destructive anxiety a dog experiences when he or she is separated from their owner for periods of time. If your dog suffers from this condition, it’s important to seek help.

"Dogs with separation anxiety can suffer from significantly decreased quality of life due to severe stress, in addition to causing physical harm to themselves and their surroundings,” says Allyson Corr, a veterinarian at Helping Hands in Richmond, Virginia.

It’s important to note that Prozac doesn’t work for every dog.

“Prozac usually produces improvement, but sometimes the improvement is not all that is desired,” Dodman says. “In that case, augmentation strategies with other compatible medications can achieve the desired effect. That said, given time and the correct dose, the improvement can be spectacular.”

What are the pros of Prozac for dogs?

1. It helps reduce aggression.

2. It helps alleviate fear and anxiety conditions, like separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia.

3. It stabilizes mood and reduces impulsivity.

4. It is effective for treating obsessive-compulsive behaviors (OCD).

5. It often shuts down urine-marking in the home.

For the unfamiliar, Dodman explains that OCD behaviors are bizarre, repetitive behaviors that appear to serve no useful function.

“The most famous is so-called acral lick, in which mostly large-breed dogs lick repetitively at the wrists or hocks to the point of causing soreness, ulceration and a tissue reaction called granuloma,” Dodman says. “Other canine compulsive disorders include light or shadow-chasing, tail-chasing, rock-chewing, compulsive digging and even compulsive swimming. And there are others. They are all species-typical behaviors that are performed excessively and out of context.”

What are the cons of Prozac for dogs?

1. It takes quite a while to work. (About four to six weeks)

2. Some dogs show side effects. See below for details.

3. Overdose can cause muscle tremors and (theoretically) serotonin syndrome. (More on that below.)

4. There is a stigma associated with giving Prozac to pets.

If you tell someone your dog is taking Prozac, it’s not uncommon to get a raised eyebrow, experts say.

“The stigma is that many people think it’s unconscionable to give human psychoactive medication to a dog,” Dodman says. “They clearly do not understand that it can be life-saving. The same people may shun that kind of medicine themselves, again, for no good reason.”

Dodman says it would be extremely difficult for a dog to overdose on Prozac.

“It is a very safe drug, far safer than a lot of other medications that people take without qualms,” he says. “It is true, though, that if you take two serotonin medications together at high doses, the so-called serotonin syndrome theoretically could be triggered.”

Serotonin syndrome is the accumulation of too much of the serotonin chemical in the body, and symptoms include fever, muscle twitching, convulsions and more.

“I have never seen it, and I’ve never heard of it being reported in the vet literature, but it is a theoretical possibility,” Dodman says.

Does Prozac have side effects?

Dodman, who has used Prozac on animals for more than 25 years, says dogs could experience pruritus (itch), or you may see anxiety, tremors, restlessness or panting if they are given too high a dose of Prozac. In his experience, reduced appetite and lack of energy are the most common side effects.

What are the important first steps with Prozac?

Before going the Prozac route, Petryk says it’s important to build a relationship with a veterinarian you trust, who knows both you and your dog.

"There are many factors that need to be considered before reaching for a pill," she says, all of which can be talked through with your veterinarian.

Petryk stresses that medications for behavior problems are not a one-stop solution.

"It is important to be aware that this medication may take several weeks to take full effect, and that drug therapy alone is not sufficient to control anxiety in the majority of cases without the addition of a strict behavioral modification program that may include training, desensitization or other methods appropriate for the particular pet," Corr says.

It’s recommended that you talk with your vet about the benefits of different types of training and behavior modification techniques so you can have a full understanding of all options available to you and your dog. It’s also important for you and your vet make sure your furry friend is not currently on any medications that might have a bad reaction to the introduction of this new pill.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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