The Frontal Cortex

Pets on Prozac and Animal Rights

I’m curious how animal rights activists feel about this:

They are the new “Prozac Nation”: cats, dogs, birds, horses and an assortment of zoo animals whose behavior has been changed, whose anxieties and fears have been quelled and whose owners’ furniture has been spared by the use of antidepressants. Over the last decade, Prozac, Buspar, Amitriptyline, Clomicalm — clomipromine that is marketed expressly for dogs — and other drugs have been used to treat inappropriate, destructive and self-injuring behavior in animals.

It’s not a big nation yet. But “over the past five years, use has gone up quite a bit,” said veterinarian Richard Martin of the Brentwood Pet Clinic in West Los Angeles. Half a decade ago, no more than 1% of his patients were on antidepressants. Now, Martin estimates that 5% of the 8,000 cats and dogs seen at the clinic are taking drugs for their behavior.

On the one hand, I hope animal rights activists applaud pet owners who love their pets so much they are willing to purchase expensive pharmaceuticals. The article cites case after case of different species – everything from a cat to an orangutan – benefiting from anti-depressants. The pills don’t up-regulate happiness as much as they down-regulate excess anxiety. (Is modern life so upsetting for animals? Apparently.)

On the other hand, isn’t this another form of animal experimentation? Does Kitty or Fido really want to be drugged? Are these psychoactive drugs just another way of trying to control natural behaviors and instincts that shouldn’t be controlled? Where do we draw the line? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they’re worth pondering. We should be wary of trying to turn every pet into a docile stuffed animal.

And on a related note, I’ve been meaning to say something about the increasing immorality of some dog breeders. In our yearning for idiosyncratic pets – dogs with blue hair, poodles that fit in teacups, etc. – we’re inducing an awful lot of animal suffering. The problem seems to be especially acute in Japan:

Rare dogs are highly prized here in Japan, and can set buyers back more than $10,000. But the real problem is what often arrives in the same litter: genetically defective sister and brother puppies born with missing paws or faces lacking eyes and a nose.

There have been dogs with brain disorders so severe that they spent all day running in circles, and others with bones so frail they dissolved in their bodies. Many carry hidden diseases that crop up years later, veterinarians and breeders say.

If I were an animal rights activist, this is what I’d spend my time trying to fix. The specialized dog breeding industry are doing something far worse than scientists who experiment on animals. At least scientists generate knowledge; the suffering of these pets is just a result of neglect. There is no ancillary benefit.

Comments

  1. #1 DLR
    January 10, 2007

    Yeah, I feel dogs have just been getting smaller and smaller over the last couple of decades. There has to be some kind of limit here. I also second your notion that animal rights activists hould spend more time trying to improve the pet industry, especially pet abuse. but i dont think ssri treatment for pets is any sort of abuse. think of it as just another sort of training.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    January 10, 2007

    Pets have problems (mental, physical) just like we do; likely exacerbated by being taken out of their habitat and into surburbia. At that point, there’s no going back to the wild though. Might as well make it as comfortable for the pet and the owner as possible, lest Fido end up in a shelter (death sentence for most). SSRIs might just save the lives of lots of pets by improving their mental health and theliving situation for all involved.

    Certain bird breeds are prone to feather-picking issues as a bad habit. Once it starts there’s not a lot to do about it, but it seems to be drastically reduced after SSRI therapy. This is good for the bird, as it helps them break the bad habit with is an off-shoot of over active preening, in addition to reducing their skin cancer risk which plucking seemes to increase the risk for.

  3. #3 Brian
    January 10, 2007

    While I agree that there may be situations for which pharmacological intervention is necessary (i.e., rage syndrome, alopecia, etc.), I think that the knee-jerk reaction to medicate pets, at least for many of the reasons mentioned above, is a bit irresponsible.

    Especially with respect to dogs, often much of the anxiety they experience is related to irresponsibility on the part of the owner. There is a staggeringly large population of people who simply do NOT understand how dogs naturally think and behave, and don’t even bother to learn about constructive ways of modifying and/or preventing those behaviors. As a result, many well-intentioned owners end up exacerbating the difficulties already inherent in a dog’s adjustment to living with humans.

  4. #4 Terry
    January 11, 2007

    I agree 100% with Brian.

    A big part of the problem are dogs owners
    who don’t walk their dogs enough. Mellow
    dogs don’t mind short walks, but there are
    a lot of dogs with an awful amount of energy
    who *need* to have extended walks.

  5. #5 fireweaver
    January 11, 2007

    practical reasons we medicate animals (i’m a vet, btw): for the dogs, once “separation anxiety” behavior has kicked into high gear, i.e., the dog is routinely destroying the house as soon as mom or dad goes off to work for the day, it becomes a self-reinforcing habit. setting blame on neglectful owners is fine and all, but doesn’t actually solve the problem behavior, and by the time people turn to mental meds, it is getting to the point where the other options are dumping the dog off at a shelter or euthanizing it.

    Shelley’s dead on about the feather-plucking in some parrots. the majority of them don’t respond well to just behavior/diet modification, and meds are actually quite necessary to the bird’s health.

    as far as zoo animals, the primates especially are prone to developing self-injurious behaviors. after the environmental enrichment strategies have all been explored, meds are a very useful therapy to improve their lives.

    but back to wacky pet breeding: it’s not just the japanese. several years ago, there was a completely crazy chick stateside that was breeding “twisty cats”: these guys had such significant limb deformities (their wrists twisted in and up, hence the name) that they limped along on the outer part of the wrist rather than on the feet.

  6. #6 Rick Bogle
    January 14, 2007

    “If I were an animal rights activist, this is what I’d spend my time trying to fix. The specialized dog breeding industry are doing something far worse than scientists who experiment on animals.”

    If I were a biomedical researcher intent on improving human health I’d spend my time studying humans. If I knew so little about the animal rights movement as to assume that nothing was being tried to counter the specialized breeding of designer animals, my opinion about what animal rights activists ought to be doing wouldn’t amount to very much.

    Knowledge, in and of itself, is a pitiful justification for any activity that causes pain and suffering.

  7. #7 Justin
    February 2, 2007

    I think anti-depressants are doin wonders as they have the capability of controlling the behavior of animals and for all good reasons… Thanks for the info anyways.

  8. #8 A Key
    December 1, 2007

    Great. A whole new industry for commercial interests – pills for pets. It’s bad enough that people are over medicated, experiencing unexplainable issues, now we are adding toxic substances and side-effects to the animals. What’s next – animal holistics and meditation? I don’t think chemicalized quick fixes can replace animal psychology. We don’t always know what they truly want and truly need; we sort of treat them like miniature humans who mirror our nature. They have their own nature and their own needs.