Nicholas Dodman, standing before a California audience of animal-behaviour specialists who could charitably be described as skeptical of his veterinary techniques, takes a moment to acknowledge some of those who made his lecture possible.
“First of all, I’d like to thank Eli Lilly for kindly helping us ... by paying some of our expenses,” Dr. Dodman says. “So, salute to Lilly,” he adds, firing off an actual salute. “Thank you very much.”
It’s a tactic, one assumes, that Dr. Dodman has adopted to blunt one of the main criticisms of his work — by dealing with his ties to the pharmaceutical industry up front, he can’t be accused later of obscuring them.
Dr. Dodman, founder of the Animal Behaviour Clinic at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is one the foremost “pioneers” — a term he employs — in the field of treating house pets with psychoactive drugs originally designed for humans. It’s a trend often casually referred to as Prozac for Puppies, and while the phrase makes for a punchy alliterative headline, it’s also quite literally true: Eli Lilly & Co., makers of the anti-depressant Prozac, also produce a version of the pill intended for veterinary use called Reconcile. Just like Snausages or Milk Bones, it comes flavoured like beef.
“When I first heard about people putting their pets on Prozac, my natural reaction was that it was a sign of the apocalypse,” says filmmaker Patrick Reed, who explores the arguments put forth by Dr. Dodman — and his critics — in Pet Pharm, a new documentary that airs on CBC tonight.
“But it’s easy to just sit in judgment,” he adds, so he set out to hear what proponents of pet pharmacology had to say. What he found, he says, is that people in today’s society have become so attached to their pets that they are willing to consider any avenue to save their relationship with them.
“What do you do when a pet is like a surrogate child, a major part of the family?” he says. “People don’t want to just get rid of a problem pet. When that pet has serious behavioural problems, what do you do in those situations?”
Pet Pharm visits several such families. There are the sisters who have an extraordinarily yappy miniature poodle that freaks out at the slightest provocation: In one scene an extended high-pitched barking fit during a walk in the neighbourhood sets off car alarms. There is the woman whose large mutt has a visceral hatred for her live-in boyfriend, which requires the dog be muzzled even while indoors. There is a different pair of sisters who have three cats: two of which are rambunctious and one of which is a ball of anxiety that wants nothing to do with its frisky housemates. The poodle is described as having “separation anxiety,” the nervous cat is said to have “obsessive compulsive disorder” — human conditions applied to their canine and feline companions. In each case, the pet owners have turned to medication because, they say, it was a last resort.
Dr. Dodman himself says pharmacology is only meant for extreme cases, but critics argue that once pharmacology becomes acceptable as a last resort, it’s a short walk to becoming a first response.
“Drugs are touted as a quick fix, a panacea for all problems,” says Dr. Ian Dunbar, an animal trainer based in Berkeley, Calif. “But that’s absolutely untrue. This is how it’s marketed, and I take offence to that.”
Mr. Reed, for one, says it’s not necessarily the motivations of pet owners that should raise concerns, but the marketing of drugs like Reconcile. Eli Lilly’s website for Reconcile, for example, says that 17% of household dogs in the United States suffer from separation anxiety, and are candidates for its beef-flavoured mood softener.
“While you may not be familiar with canine separation anxiety, you are probably familiar with its symptoms,” the website says. It notes that dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit symptoms while owners are out of the house that include: chewing destructively, barking or whining, drooling and pacing.
These symptoms are also, critics note, a sign of the fact that the subjects in question are, simply, dogs. They chew things. They bark. It’s what they do.
“In certain cases, maybe the pill can be effective,” Mr. Reed says. “But maybe getting another dog would also be effective. Or taking your dog for a walk could be equally as effective. Sometimes people are seduced by what they see as a quick fix, which is not necessarily the case.”
One of the pet owners of Pet Pharm brings her cats to see Dr. Dodman. “Gabriel will occasionally eat things — this blanket that I keep in the carriage,” she says, showing a sizable hole in a blue blanket. “I went into the closet, they had destroyed four wool coats. Not just chewed them — ate them.”
Dr. Dodman offers a diagnosis. “This is a feline obsessive compulsive disorder. We can give the Prozac family of medicines, and you can reduce it to an accent. All he wants to do is eat wool,” he says, and the owner chuckles. She pets Gabriel, and he purrs a little, oblivious to what his wool-eating desires have wrought.
Scott Stinson, National Post · Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010
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