Anti-Anxiety Medications for Foster Dogs

fearful dogs Jun 28, 2022
Dog getting a pill

June is Foster a Pet month! So far this month I've talked about skills to teach fearful foster dogs, the benefits of scent work for fearful foster dogs, and what to do when you're fostering a leash-reactive dog. This week, I'm wrapping up Foster a Pet month with a discussion about what to consider when you have a foster dog who might benefit from anti-anxiety medication. 


What Are Anti-Anxiety Medications Used For In Dogs? 

Anti-anxiety medications are usually prescribed by a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist, in an attempt to decrease a dog's (or other animal's) fear-related behaviors. For example, dogs who lunge and bark at dogs or people, flee and hide from people, noises, or other changes in the environment, or howl, shake, or are destructive when left alone might be candidates for a medication consult with a veterinary behaviorist. 

The purpose of anti-anxiety medications depend on the dog and their diagnosis. In general, these medications are used in conjunction with training to change a dog's behavior for the better. 


Considerations For Anti-Anxiety Medications For Foster Dogs

I discussed some common questions shelter and rescue staff and volunteers have regarding anti-anxiety medications, with Dr. Bain (DACVB) from the University of California, Davis Veterinary Behavior Service

1. In what scenarios should I consult a veterinary behaviorist about anti-anxiety medication for a foster dog? 

If a fearful foster dog's behavior is preventing them from being adopted, that dog might be a candidate for a consult with a veterinary behaviorist.  Dr. Bain cautions that you should have a behavioral goal in mind for these dogs. Instead of "We need to decrease this dog's anxiety," something more specific like "We''d like the dog to be able to accept treats from potential adopters after 3 visits," might be more helpful. 

If you plan to consult a veterinary behaviorist about a foster dog's behavior and possibly start them on anti-anxiety medication, you should also have a behavior expert helping the foster parents follow a training plan that will help the dog reach the goals you've set. (If you're reading this in June, there are still 3 days to get 20% off of our training services with the rescue code RESCUE20!)

2. How long should I wait before consulting with a veterinary behaviorist? 

There's no one right answer to this. If the dog's issue is related to a single scenario or "trigger", and a change in foster home could solve the problem, then that might be a good first step. But if the foster dog is afraid of many things (e.g. all strangers, or other animals, or the outside world, or being touched), then getting on the calendar with a veterinary behaviorist is likely a good idea. These days you might be waiting months for an appointment, so don't wait too long to take action! 

3. How long will the foster dog need to be on medication?

Again, this depends on the individual dog. Some dogs only take anti-anxiety medications prior to specific events, like going to the veterinarian, or a thunderstorm. Some dogs are on daily anti-anxiety medications for months or years, or even life-long.  The answer to "How long?" depends on the dog and their circumstances. 

4. What do I need to tell the adopter of a dog who is on anti-anxiety medication?

If an adopter is considering a dog who is on anti-anxiety medication, it's important for them to understand that they can't just stop the medication on their own. Send them home with a decent supply of the dog's medications, and help connect them with the prescribing veterinarian. If needed, help make sure the necessary medical records are transferred from the prescribing veterinarian to the adopter's vet. If the dog has a training plan and a trainer has been working with them, consider paying for some amount of ongoing training with that trainer, post-adoption.


Ethical Considerations Around Anti-Anxiety Medications For Foster Dogs

Dr. Bain had some great insight into ethical questions that should be addressed if you're thinking about consulting with a veterinary behaviorist regarding behavioral medications for a foster dog. 

1. Are you medicating a dog so they will tolerate a less-than-ideal environment? 

Most of the time, if there is an environmental change you can make that will alleviate a dog's fear or anxiety, this is the more ethical choice, compared with medication. Would the dog be much less anxious in a home without children? With another dog? 

2. Can your rescue provide the necessary training support? 

Medication alone is rarely a fix for behavior problems. Do you have a behavior professional who can develop a training plan, and guide the foster family through its implementation? If not, medication might not provide much benefit. 

3. Is this dog adoptable? By whom? And with what resources? 

Few adopters look for a dog who will need behavioral medications and extensive training. These dogs are a lot of work, and can cause a lot of wear and tear on the adoptive family.  Consider how likely it is that you will be able to find an adopter who will knowingly take on a very fearful dog and the associated time and financial investments. 

4. What is your rescue's mission? 

Is your rescue's mission to rescue as many animals as possible? Or do you specialize in certain higher-need populations like senior dogs or fearful dogs?  Fearful dogs require more time, effort, and money per dog than dogs without major behavior issues. That means that you'll have fewer resources to go around, and won't be able to help as many dogs. Be sure that your organization is clear on their vision and happy to focus on fewer dogs who are more resource-intensive. 


If after considering all these questions, you've decided one of your foster dogs would be best served by consulting with a veterinary behaviorist, search the directory here to find the closest one to you. If there are no veterinary behaviorists in your area, don't despair- there are a few who offer remote consulting. Shoot us a message or email ([email protected]) for our latest list of vet behaviorists who will work remotely. 



In honor of Foster a Pet Month, we're offering a 20% discount on our Scent Work class, the Reactive Dog Survival Guide course, Healthy Smiles toothbrushing course, our monthly training membership, and one-on-one initial assessments. Use the code "RESCUE20" when checking out.