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Dogs on Drugs

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A pooch doesn't have to be hounded by depression anymore

By Will Harper

A LONG TIME AGO in a land far away, I used to have a dog, a German shepherd mix--i.e., a mutt--named Mr. Cool, a moniker I lifted from the hip canine character in the Happy Days cartoon series. Unfortunately, Mr. Cool boasted neither the Fonz-like suaveness of his namesake nor the ability to say "Aayyyy."

Each weekday as I began my sojourn to La Mesa Junior High, Mr. Cool would see me walking away from behind the chain-link fence enclosing our yard. He knew I was leaving him and he'd start barking. And barking. I could hear him still yapping a block away.

The drama caused by my morning departures concerned me, and I started trying to sneak out of the house without being detected. I'd close the door quietly and lock it with a slow hand. Then I'd practically tiptoe by the yard so Mr. Cool wouldn't hear me and freak out. A couple of times, I made it without being spotted. But most times, the sound of his barking in the distance continued to haunt me.

One day, Mr. Cool got so hyperactive after I went to school, he dug his way under the chain-link fence and disappeared forever.

Perhaps we might have had the honor of Mr. Cool's company longer had we lived in another age. An age where dogs are prescribed pills to counter depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior. An age like today.

Earlier this year, the Swiss company Novartis released "Clomicalm," the first FDA-approved psychological drug shown to work for canines in clinical trials.

Clomicalm is specifically designed to treat what veterinarians call "separation anxiety," the kind of behavior exhibited by Mr. Cool when I went to school. Essentially, separation anxiety is where a dog wigs out after its owner leaves home. Common symptoms include nonstop barking, chewing or destroying furniture, pooping or peeing on the carpet (what vets euphemistically refer to as "inappropriate elimination"), and mutilating themselves or jumping through windows.

According to a study conducted by Novartis, more than 14 percent of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. It's a behavioral disorder that is often misunderstood by dog owners.

"Pet owners with a dog that exhibits signs of separation anxiety often believe they have a 'bad dog,' " says Dr. Debra Horwitz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist from St. Louis, Mo. "They misinterpret their pet's actions as disobedience, anger or revenge. However, these actions are really the result of the dog's severe anxiety due to its distress from being left alone."

The press has labeled Clomicalm "Prozac for pups" because the drug has the same properties as antidepressant medication for humans. But that's something of a misnomer. The intent behind Clomicalm is more like Ritalin, the drug used to mellow out hyperactive children. The ultimate goal of both drugs isn't necessarily to keep the kids happy, but to keep them from acting out.

The difference is that if junior doesn't respond to Ritalin, his parents can't get him "euthanized," which is what often happens to dogs who misbehave, according to veterinary associations. Animal behaviorists are hopeful that fewer dogs will end up on death row now that there's a pill to curb bad behavior.

Still, Clomicalm isn't a panacea by itself. The pill just helps the re-education process. Dog owners still must do the time-consuming "behavioral modification" techniques to get their canine kids to accept being alone. For instance: Leaving the home for progressively longer periods of time so the dog learns that his master will return.

Perhaps it's only fitting that as society becomes increasingly neurotic, so do our pets. In fact, animal behaviorists call separation anxiety the pet problem of the '90s because dogs are being left alone longer with owners spending more hours at work. Latchkey pups.

It used to be that dogs were bred to perform specific functions like herd sheep or track game. But now their main function is to be one of the family, and we are increasingly treating them more like humans. Behavioral malfunction? Try this pill.

My roommate's friend, who has a small dog with major separation-anxiety troubles (she brings him to work and he drools constantly, another symptom), only half-jokingly suggested she would like anonymity for her and her dog in this story to avoid embarrassment--like the dog was some crazy aunt.

The world, you might say, has gone to the dogs.

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From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of Metro.

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