When Ellen Palestrant, author of Pretzel on Prozac, immigrated with her family from South Africa to the American Southwest, she anticipated the adjustment might not be easy for everyone. But she did not foresee how hard the move would be on her dog Pretzel. In unfamiliar surroundings never before experienced, all routines shattered, Pretzel became fearful, despondent, and depressed.
“He was terrified. Everything worried him. I couldn’t even unload the dishwasher with him in the room,” Palestrant said. Soon he stopped eating. She took him to the vet who diagnosed Pretzel’s depression and said, “Pretzel needs Prozac.” She put him on the anti-depressant and after a dosage adjustment he “became a happy dog.”
I asked Palestrant how she felt about making that decision: “I understand there is an ethical question, but for us there was no choice because he was suffering, and possibly would have died.”
One of the pioneers of treating animals with anti-depressants is Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian, professor, and the Head Program Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Animal Fair asked him about the ethical question of giving Prozac to a dog: “I don’t see a problem with it,” he said. “We give them all kinds of medications and surgery when we think they need it, just like parents and doctors do for children.”
Professor Dodman has worked with zoos and other animal organizations treating behavioral and other problems with anti-depressants. “It saves lives, fixes behavior problems and speeds recovery,” he says. “There is no real mortal danger in it and the side effects are manageable by dose adjustment.”
Peter L. Borchelt, an animal behaviorist, cautions however that, “Prozac is not a miracle cure. It is one of a number of tools that may help some symptoms, most frequently separation anxiety in dogs.” He advises that medication be used as a last resort, after training and other options have been thoroughly explored. “Don’t just throw it at any problem and don’t keep the animal on it forever.”
Veterinarian of Cathedral Dog and Cat Hospital in New York City, Henry Fierman concurs: “I think ethically it’s a grey zone, but so are many other medications and treatments. If you give your cat steroids to stop him from spraying, you are altering animal behavior. I see anti-depressants as a last resort only. Once all else has failed, it’s an alternative.”