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Why Are So Many Dogs on Prozac?

Why Are So Many Dogs on Prozac?

Marcia Munt was 47 when she adopted her first dog. It was 2020, the height of the pandemic, and her house felt empty. Maisie was a nine-week-old bundle of cream-colored fur and lopsided ears. But Munt, a consultant in Sacramento, soon became convinced that the dog was not normal. Maisie howled at any stimulus. She paced all night and pounced on anyone who came to the house. Munt, who had only ever owned cats, couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to have a dog. “I had been the best dog mother I could be,” she told me. But she spent much of that first year in tears.

Maisie’s vet prescribed fluoxetine, better known as Prozac, but it ruined the dog’s appetite. Munt then turned to Melissa Bain, a veterinary behaviorist with a wider pharmaceutical arsenal. Maisie now takes venlafaxine, an antidepressant, and gabapentin, an anticonvulsant, with an option for the sedative clonidine in particularly fraught situations. “It’s a bit of a cocktail that is always being adjusted,” Munt said. She spends hundreds of dollars each month on Maisie’s care and considers it well worth it. Perhaps the most valuable treatment Bain offered, however, was for the human, not the dog. “Honestly, it just felt cathartic in many ways,” Munt told me. “She said, ‘It’s Maisie. It’s not you. You have done everything you need to do.’”

The rise in anxiety among American humans has been exhaustively documented. With much less fanfare, we also seem to have entered the age of the anxious canine. Last fall, a New York Times wellness column offered earnest advice on “How to Handle Your Pet’s Anxiety”; the author, reporting that veterinarians were observing an uptick in stressed-out animals, noted that two of her editors had cats on Prozac. In a 2016 study, 83 percent of veterinary general practitioners reported prescribing dogs anti-anxiety medication. (In the 1990s, some began prescribing Prozac off-label; the FDA approved a version for treating dog separation anxiety in 2007.) Although there are no comprehensive statistics on the share of dogs on prescription anxiety meds, more than half of American dog owners said that they buy “calming” products including pheromone spray and Lycra jumpsuits, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2023–24 pet-owners survey. Google searches for dog anxiety have roughly tripled over the past decade. Many of America’s 85 veterinary behaviorists are booked months in advance. The seven I spoke with said that the number of people seeking pet mental-health care has exploded in the past few years. But there is no consensus as to why.

One theory is that dogs today really are more anxious. Rather than buying from a breeder, more Americans are choosing to adopt. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, shelters are euthanizing nearly two-thirds fewer animals than they were a decade ago. Adoption saves lives, but it sometimes leaves traumatized pets with inexperienced owners. Meanwhile, we’ve also altered the way pets live. Pet dogs (and cats) used to spend more time outside; now, experts told me, they’re much more likely to stay indoors. When they do go outside, they’re kept on leashes or under supervision. As Americans have fewer kids, they’ve begun to think of their pets as children and to act as “helicopter” fur-parents, the bioethicist Jessica Pierce told me. Animals tend to live longer under these conditions, but they miss out on mental stimulation and interaction with their own species. That might make them anxious or aggressive toward people and other dogs. The pandemic dog-buying spike heightened all of these dynamics, as millions of dogs spent their first years socially distancing.

Still, the proliferation of medicated dogs might say more about their owners. Vet behaviorists are mostly clustered in liberal areas; so are human anxiety diagnoses. Amy Pike started her career practicing in rural Kentucky, where her client list was short. Now she serves pet owners in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, and business is booming. In Pike’s view, that’s because her new neighbors have a healthy respect for the science around pet mental health and medication. She and other vet behaviorists believe that dogs have always been anxious, and that the welcome destigmatization of human mental-health issues has allowed us to finally recognize their suffering. But it could be that anxious adults are projecting their own issues onto their furry companions. Some dog owners have clearly begun to pathologize normal dog habits. A 2019 survey concluded that 85 percent of dogs had behavioral problems; almost half of the owners reported that their pet had anxiety. The numbers seem incredible, until you look at the list of bad behaviors. Repetitive behaviors like digging in the yard or displaying a “tennis ball fetish” qualified, as did excessive barking. What people classify as a behavioral issue, said Pierce, the bioethicist, reflects human expectations as much as a dog’s nature.

So is the dog-anxiety crisis real, or is it a product of owners’ anxiety-riddled psyches? Dogs can’t tell us how they’re feeling, so we’ll probably never know. But both explanations are depressing. Either humans are stressing dogs out so much that they truly need prescription meds, or owners are putting their dogs on unnecessary psychoactive drugs to address annoying but normal dog habits. It might be time, in other words, to reevaluate the way we approach dog ownership. Many Americans don’t have the time, energy, or green space their pets need to thrive. If the choice is to medicate our dogs or to make them, and ourselves, miserable, pet ownership starts to seem ethically murky. “Ideally, a lot fewer people would own dogs and cats,” Pierce told me.

That’s a hard message for pet lovers to hear. When I was growing up, my family had a labradoodle named Trixie. For much of her life, she was a dog-park dog, happiest when chasing tennis balls and sniffing puppy butts. But about halfway through her 15 years, she was bitten by another dog. After the incident, Trixie snarled and snapped at other dogs she met. We spent less time at the park.

My conversations with pet behaviorists made me wonder if I had failed her. It hadn’t occurred to me to slather Xanax in peanut butter and slip it into her kibble. Had I missed the signs that my dog needed treatment? I asked Bain, the veterinary behaviorist, about this. I could sense that she thought the answer was yes. But she was gentle about it. “Were you a bad owner when your dog barked at other dogs?” she asked. I began fumbling out a response, but she interrupted me. “No. No. No. You weren’t,” she said. “You didn’t know any better.”

It was kind of her to reassure me. But I was still left to wonder whether medicating dogs is in their best interest—or ours.

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