Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Altered States

Medical therapy plus behavior modification may help dogs and cats with anxieties, phobias and compulsive behaviors

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Primrose, a 3-year-old Pyrenean shepherd, has always had a lot of nervous energy -- to the point that her behavior could be annoying, says owner Deb Rabuck of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

After Rabuck had Prim spayed last August, the dog’s behavior changed, and not for the better. Already aggressive toward unknown dogs and people, she began urine-marking in the house and developed signs of anxiety such as panting and pacing. Prim’s behavior kept Rabuck from sleeping at night and disturbed her other dogs.

“I had to separate her from my other two dogs,” she says. “I was afraid they would kill her. She drives them crazy with all that energy.”

Rabuck took Prim to veterinary behaviorist Jacqueline Wilhelmy, VMD. After running lab tests to rule out possible health problems, Dr. Wilhelmy prescribed Prozac and gabapentin and offered behavior modification advice. It has been 11 days, and while Prim is still urine-marking, Rabuck is now able to sleep through the night.

Pet behavior problems such as separation anxiety; thunderstorm or other noise-related fears; compulsive disorders such as excessive chewing, licking, tail chasing or other repetitive behaviors; or aggression toward other animals or humans can all respond to many of the same psychoactive medications that help humans. They include fluoxetine (Prozac), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor; gabapentin, an antiseizure medication sometimes used off-label for pain and anxiety; tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline; and benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium.

“Not in every case do we use a medication, but when it is indicated, it can really facilitate the progress of the case quite dramatically,” says Patrick Melese, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in San Diego, California.

Medications used in humans have the same or similar effects in dogs and cats because the nervous systems of animals and humans operate in a similar manner. The goal is to normalize brain chemistry and improve the way the animal processes information.

Shannon Gillespie’s border collie Fizz has taken Prozac for more than five years because she would “explode” when frustrated or excited and was unable to calm down quickly. About four years ago, when Fizz’s veterinarian prescribed gabapentin for torn bicep and supraspinatus muscles, Gillespie noticed a further positive change in her behavior. Now Fizz takes both medications to help her maintain a calm demeanor.

“Medications can help decrease the animal’s overall level of anxiety, aggressive behavior, and reactivity and help with impulse control, says Wailani Sung, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist at San Francisco SPCA Behavior Specialty Service and co-author of the book “From Fearful to Fear Free.” “They are typically prescribed when the animal has a high level of anxiety, aggressive behavior and reactivity, (and) when the inappropriate behavior occurs daily or multiple times a week or is very intense.”

It can take several weeks on medication before pets become calm or relaxed enough to start learning new ways of coping or adjust to changes in the household or interactions with family members or other animals. How long medical therapy continues depends on the individual animal and situation. It can range from a few months to a year to a lifetime. Animals may stay on the same dose or have it gradually reduced as the situation improves.

Medication by itself won’t solve a pet’s behavior problems. Behavior modification and environmental changes, if needed, are a necessary part of treatment. (The exception, Dr. Melese says, is urine-marking in cats, which typically responds well to medication alone.) A veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist can develop a plan to help the animal respond more appropriately to the circumstances that trigger the behavior.


How much grooming

do rabbits need?

Q: We recently adopted a rabbit from the animal shelter. What do we need to know about grooming him?

A: Although you may notice that your pet rabbit grooms daily like a cat, he will still need help from you to maintain his coat.

Short-coated breeds such as the Dutch or the Netherland dwarf need at least weekly brushing. Long-coated breeds such angoras or lionheads require daily brushing to maintain their coats. Whether your rabbit has short or long hair, brushing removes loose hair that might otherwise end up in the digestive tract and cause a blockage.

You can assess your rabbit’s overall health during grooming. As you brush, check for fleas, because rabbits can be susceptible to them. Check with your veterinarian before using any flea-control product on your rabbit, and avoid flea powders and shampoos. Be on the alert for lumps, bumps or crusty patches that could indicate health problems. After brushing, check your rabbit's eyes and ears for any discharge, and make sure his paws are free from any sores.

Examine your rabbit’s nails weekly, and trim them when they become long. Your veterinarian can show you how to safely trim the nails. If you're not comfortable doing it yourself, make an appointment for a bunny pedicure at the clinic.

During spring and fall, you may notice more bunny hairs in the brush than usual. This is because your rabbit is losing his winter coat (in the spring) or building it up (in the fall). You may want to increase the frequency of brushing during these transitions.

Rabbits don't normally require baths, and bathing can be stressful for them, but spot cleaning of problem areas -- such as their rears -- can be accomplished with a washcloth and warm water. Dry the fur with a towel after it has been cleaned. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Guess breed mixes,

help dog science

-- Think you’re good at guessing a mixed-breed dog’s ancestry? Test your skills with the MuttMix Project, a joint “citizen science” survey conducted by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and Darwin’s Dogs (a dog genome research venture at Broad Institute of Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School). Take the video quiz, which asks you to guess which three breeds contribute the largest percentage of DNA for each dog pictured, and submit your answers. In 60 days, you’ll find out the answers and receive a certificate of participation. For more information, visit

-- June is Adopt-A-Cat Month, and American Humane offers tips on acquiring a cat from a shelter if you’re ready to bring one into your life. Here are the top three: 1. Choose one who suits your own personality. Adoption counselors can point out which cats are laid-back and which are active. 2. Consider getting either two kittens or a bonded adult pair so your cat will have a friend when you’re not at home. 3. Find a cat-friendly veterinarian, and schedule an exam for your new feline friend within a few days of bringing him home. For more tips, see

-- Are sunglasses for dogs a fashion statement or a necessity? A little bit of both, it turns out. Dogs who spend a lot of time on boats, running through brushy areas or hanging their heads out the car window need protection from flying debris, sand, prickly foliage and sun glare. Other dogs who can benefit from pet eyewear are those with large, protruding eyeballs such as Boston terriers, cavalier King Charles spaniels, French bulldogs and pugs, as well as search-and-rescue or military working dogs in dry, sandy environments. They can be prone to corneal ulcerations and recurrent conjunctivitis. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.