Monday, September 10, 2012

Better living through pharmaceuticals

Alternate titles considered for this post: Mother's Little Helper, Purple Haze, White Rabbit...

Now lest I totally date myself here, let me also add: Comfortably Numb, Dr. Feelgood and The Dope Show...  (That last one is kind of R-rated. Just sayin'...)

And so, we've come to the fifth spoke in our wheel: medication. This, along with Bella's Agility for Reactive Dogs class, is an ongoing story so this post will be brief (promises, promises!) but I'll be going into more details about how the drugs affected Bella, and what we did to accommodate and address various issues we ran into along the way for probably as long as she and the blog survive.

I had begun talking to a friend in one of the rescues I volunteer with about medication for dogs in May 2011. Actually, she started talking to me.

Her dog, much like Bella was an anxious and fearful dog and she had placed him on a low dose of Prosac about two years earlier. She was very empathetic to what we were going through and a real advocate for medication as a means to help our dogs cope.

It still took us 4 months and a bite before we set up an appointment to talk to a doctor about prescribing medication for Bella.

When mulling over the points I wanted to make in this post, two came to instantly to mind:
  1. We shouldn't be so resistant to medications that are proven to help dogs who are otherwise suffering in fear, and
  2. Medications are not a quick fix or magic pill.
I think point 2 plays in to the resistance referenced in point 1. It's easy to think yourself a failure if you 'resort' to medicating your dog. We didn't try hard enough, we didn't do it right, someone else would have been a better pet parent, we're taking the easy way out...

Well, let me tell anyone who is considering putting their dog on medication to help manage their fear and anxiety - it ain't easy. Jan and I have never so carefully evaluated Bella's every mood and manner. We keep a journal that tracks her meds, her food intake, her behavior and her temperament. Is she withdrawn? Lethargic? Is she eating? What do her stools look like? How much water is she drinking?

If this is a magic pill, someone forgot to add the magic.

Our goal in using medications with Bella was to simply get her "under threshold" long enough that we could begin to teach her other coping mechanisms. Dr. Dodman suggested we start Bella on a low-dose of Prosac (fluoxetine) for the aggression issues, soloxine for her hypothyroidism and clonidine to help her cope with thunderstorms.

Fluoxetine (Prosac) elevates the serotonin levels in the brain and can help reduce anxiety. Bella would start at 30 mg/day, 10 mg in the morning and 20 mg at night since serotonin levels drop in the evening. 
Soloxine is the drug we put her on for the sub-clinical hypothyroidism. It's a simple thyroid replacement medication. The benefit is that in controlling her hypothyroidism, to some degree her aggression is also controlled.
Clonidine acts to counter the flight or flight response. It's especially effective for managing thunderstorm phobia, fear aggression and separation anxiety.
We've had our ups and downs.

We've adjusted the medications Bella's taking and how often, four times in the year she's been on them. And we've adjusted the doses even more than that. She has at times broken my heart in fear that I'd lost my plucky, ebullient little girl and made me weep with joy the day she initiated play with me again for the first time in ages.

If I could offer a bit of encouragement to anyone considering medications as an option for their dog, I'd like it to be this bit of wisdom from Bella's first trainer, Sheila:

One day while discussing my concerns that medications might change my Bella's personality, that I was worried the meds would 'change' her, Sheila, dog bless her, told me, "If Bella's brain chemistry is out of balance and the medications bring that back into balance, then the meds won't be changing her personality, they'll be revealing it. The real Bella will emerge."

And so Bella's story continues...

Her 'real self' has indeed finally emerged and she is still just as sweet and adorable as she always was. I'll be sharing lots of details and stories about her agility class and our journey with medications as her story progresses. I hope you'll stick with us. We're finally out of the heavy stuff and on the road to recovery. This is where it gets good.

If I have been neglectful in thanking and praising the resources we have had working with us to help Bella, I apologize because we have no doubt had some of the best. From our vets to our trainers to Dr. Dodman and his staff, we have never lacked for empathy, kindness and consideration of Bella's situation. Every day when I see her act with more confidence, behave more like a 'normal' dog, when I see the stress and anxiety disappear little by little, I am thankful for the good work these folks in animal care do and give to us.

And I am grateful to our readers for not writing off the crazy dog at the first mention of teeth. Bella is a good dog. Yes, she has her issues and there have been times we've wondered if we really could 'fix' her but she is a sweet and playful soul who has been worth every moment of the effort and expense put in to helping her. I hope this series gives some hope to others who find themselves in similar situations. It is not an easy road but, with patience and perseverence, it is passable. Hang in there.



  1. Thanks for sharing Bella's story, it's great to see how far she's come. It's nice to know we're not the only ones who picked project dogs!

  2. These are all tough choices but I think that with your love and patience, you will make it.  poor Bella, she has had a tough start in life.  But we think she's happy with you. And that's what matters, right?

  3. Sometimes I think maybe the more 'difficult' dogs in our lives are the one's that take bigger pieces of our heart. There was a time when I wouldn't have said that! Bella is a beautiful dog... I'd love to meet her (yeah I know; the feeling isn't mutual!) I understand exactly why you love her and are so proud of her. 

  4. Thank you for sharing your story with her.  It is a learning experience for me to read this.  Have a great day.

  5. It is a very brave thing you are doing, sharing Bella's story.  I'm so thankful she found you, others wouldn't have done half as much.  Bless you.

  6. Living here with my peoples I hear a lot of what goes on. I know when they first decided to try that Fluoxetine stuff with Meadow they were very resistant for both of the same reasons you mentioned, but they began giving it to her anyway. Since then, she is not as scared of the thunder (she no longer tries to cram herself behind the sofa) - and she no longer stays scared of things for a long long time after something scary happens. So I think my peoples made the right decision, just like it sounds like you did with Bella.

  7. Medication is such a hard subject for so many of us because of just the points you made in your post. We think of it as a judgment.

    Your trainer was very wise. And I'm glad the meds helped Bella get enough peace so you could continue to do the training and behavior modification work together. Hopefully others will see this post and get the help they need.

  8. We have our Bella on Soloxine too... and we had her on the puppy Prozac at one point due to  her noise anxiety. It didn't work for her, but I think that it's something that requires trial and error to find what's right for each pup. It's fantastic that you have taken the time to figure out what works best for your Bella. :)

  9. You know, our experience is that the puppy Prozac doesn't do much for her fear and anxiety issues - the clonodine has been the godsend there.  We have a follow-up appt with Dr. D in December and are going to ask about taking her off the Prozac.  Stay tuned.... 

    But yes, there has been a LOT of tweaking to get her levels right.  It has not always been easy.

  10. You know, we're beginning to agree with you about the "difficult" dogs.  

    We'd love to meet you all as well - too bad there's this whole ocean thing in the way.  ;)

  11. Leslie, you rock so much for posting this. I will be filing it away, hopefully for the not-so-far future. I really want to get des started on a path to happiness and health.