As a Veterinarian dealing with animals with behaviour problems I come up against this opinion on a daily basis.
It is definitely appealing to imagine that animals can improve with management and behaviour modification alone, but there is a real place for including medication in an animal’s treatment plan.
Many animals with behavioural abnormalities are not this way because of a lack of training. Some of my patients are cared for by people who have diligently attended many classes to train their dog, but still their dog suffers from his/her behaviour condition. This is because changing the way an animal behaves requires that the animal is calm enough to learn new behaviours in the first place.
An animal that is hyper vigilant and stressed cannot learn. How well do you learn and retain information in a stressed state? If I dangled you off a cliff could you complete a complex ( or even an easy) maths problem? Probably not – because doing something thoughtful requires that you are not in a reactive state.
When animals come up against things/events and people that frighten them they are in a state that is designed to protect them and not a thinking state. But when you work with animals to change their behaviour you need them to have more access to thinking and making the right choices. If you give the brain more access to serotonin you can improve an animal’s impulse control. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has many effects in the central nervous system and it has been shown that increasing serotonin helps the brain deal with the negative effects of stress.
Every time an animal experiences stress there is cortisol release. Cortisol is damaging to the hippocampus (the learning and memory centre). Increasing serotonin increases the number of cortisol receptors and therefore protects the brain from the damaging effects of stress. Serotonin is also important in increasing the amount of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which allows neurons to grow and make new connections. Essentially, to improve you must allow anxious animals to use more thinking parts of their brain. This can occur more easily under the influence of increased levels of serotonin.
Caregivers are naturally worried about side effects and long-term negative effects but behaviour veterinarians use medications that have been used for decades in humans, we test the liver and kidney status of our patients, and we monitor for side effects. Yes some animals will have to change medications, as it may not suit them, but finding the right medication is something we specialise in.
Helping your animal to feel better is my aim and if that includes using medication you can be sure I will advocate for its use.