By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Canine behavior can be inscrutable at times. Why do some dogs fall apart at the mere mention of going to the “v-e-t” while others bound through the door without a care in the world? And what’s up with nail trims? Does your dog take them in stride or turn in his best Cujo impression? When faced with a dog who is anxious, aggressive, or just plain hyperactive, pet parents often long for a sedative (for their dogs, of course). But is this the right response?
Sedatives can play a role in helping dogs relax, but the drugs are often misused. Let’s look at the common types of sedatives that are given to dogs, how they work, and which are best under various circumstances.
Dealing with the Underlying Problem: Anxiety in Dogs
Anxiety—that feeling of nervousness, unease, or apprehension that we’re all familiar with—is at the heart of most behavioral problems in dogs. Sometimes anxiety is perfectly normal, but it becomes a problem when it is severe or frequent enough to have an adverse effect on the dog’s or owner’s quality of life. If your dog is anxious, you might notice some combination of the following symptoms:
- Tense muscles
- Attempts to escape the situation, which may lead to destructive behavior
- Urination, defecation, release of the anal glands
- Crouching or cowering close to the ground or trying to hide in a “safe” location
- Wide open eyes, sometimes with the whites showing
- Pulled back ears
What to Do About Anxiety in Dogs
Behavioral modification is the best way to treat anxiety in dogs. These protocols typically involve teaching dogs to remain calm when they are exposed to mild versions of their triggers, rewarding them, and gradually increasing the intensity of their exposure as long as they remain calm.
However, it can sometimes be difficult for dogs to remain calm with even the mildest of triggers. This is when medications and other products to ease anxiety become invaluable. Many over-the-counter options are available for mild anxiety, including:
- nutritional supplements like L-theanine, melatonin, or s-adenosyl-methionine
- synthetic pheromone preparations (e.g., dog appeasing pheromone or DAP)
- body wraps that provide reassuring pressure
For moderate to severe anxiety, veterinarians turn to prescription anti-anxiety medications like alprazolam, amitriptyline, buspirone, clomipramine, dexmedetomidine, diazepam, fluoxetine, lorazepam, paroxetine, sertraline, or trazodone.
Short-Term Dog Sedative Solutions
But what about those cases when a dog’s behavior needs to be addressed before anxiety treatments can take affect or when they are not appropriate? What can be done for the hyperactive dog who needs to take it easy after surgery or the dog with a history of aggression who needs X-rays ASAP, for example? This is when a sedative might be a good idea.
Oral Dog Sedatives
Owners who are looking for a sedative to give to their dogs at home are somewhat limited in their choices.
Acepromazine is the most commonly prescribed oral sedative for dogs. It is a member of the phenothiazine class of sedatives and works primarily by blocking dopamine receptors within the brain, thereby depressing certain brain functions. Unfortunately, acepromazine tablets can have wildly variable effects in different individuals. Some dogs may not appear sedated at all while others are laid flat, even when given similar doses of the drug. Additionally, the onset and duration of effect can be inconsistent and hard to predict.
A potentially better option is to squirt the injectable, liquid form of acepromazine between the gums and cheek of the dog. The medication is absorbed through the oral mucous membranes and provides more reliable sedation. Regardless of how oral acepromazine is given, side effects like low blood pressure and seizures in at-risk individuals are possible.
Sometimes a veterinarian will recommend a medication that is traditionally used for other purposes for its sedative “side effects.” For example, the anti-seizure medications phenobarbital and gabapentin are known to have a profound sedative effect when they are first given to dogs, so they can also be prescribed for use before a potentially stressful event.
Treatment with more than one drug at a time will often improve a dog’s response to sedation. Possible oral sedative combinations include:
- acepromazine and Telazol powder (an anesthetic)
- acepromazine and diazepam (an anti-anxiety drug)
- diazepam and butorphanol (an opioid pain reliever)
- phenobarbital and diazepam
- dexmedetomidine (a pain reliever and anti-anxiety medication), ketamine (an anesthetic and pain reliever), and butorphanol. This combination can be absorbed through oral mucous membranes.
Injectable Dog Sedatives
Whenever possible, giving sedatives by injection is preferable to giving them orally because a dog’s response tends to be quicker and more predictable. Most of the oral medications that are mentioned above are also available for use by injection. Popular injectable sedatives and injectable sedative combinations for dogs include:
- acepromazine and butorphanol
- diazepam and butorphanol
- Telazol and butorphanol
- dexmedetomidine (can be reversed with atipamezole)
- dexmedetomidine, ketamine, and butorphanol (can be partially reversed with atipamezole)
Your dog’s veterinarian can determine which sedative is best for your dog based on the problem that needs to be addressed and your dog’s overall health. Whichever medication is prescribed, make sure to closely follow the dosing instructions that are provided, never give more sedative than is recommended, and talk to your veterinarian about any questions or concerns that you might have.