Veterinary medicine often parallels but lags behind human medicine. In the field of treating emotional and mental disorders ranging from anxiety to OCD to depression, veterinary medicine has begun to recognize that emotional distress needs to be treated, just as physical distress would be.
I applaud wholeheartedly the veterinary community’s work to address what Canadian trainer Sue Alexander of Dogs in the Park in Guelph calls “the left side of the dog.” Sue recounts a story of hearing that a dog was in very bad shape after an accident, but upon seeing the dog, was surprised to see how good he looked. Sadly, only the right side of the dog looked okay. When she saw the left side of the dog, she recognized that the situation was indeed dire. Mental and emotional issues are often the left side of the dog, and often not seen by owners, trainers, breeders, veterinarians and others. Unseen, these issues go untreated.
Unfortunately, even at its finest, there are problems with human medicine’s application of psychopharmaceuticals intended to alleviate any number of emotional/mental issues. The old adage that if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail rings true sometimes. Once upon a time, everyone had a serotonin deficiency, apparently, thus the wild proliferation of Prozac. Turns out while helpful for the right folks, Prozac can also contribute to suicidal ideation and other problems.
As a trainer, I’ve watched the trend shift from ignoring the “left side of the dog” as merely reflecting a need for better training, different (more positive) methodologies, thyroid issues and human failure to an unhappy number of dogs being put on “doggy Prozac” (fluoxetine) and other medications. Trainers and vets alike seem to confuse behavior, temperament and lifestyle issues with a need for psychotropics.
Some dogs do. Some dogs don’t. But as someone who grew up with a bi-polar mother, I’m keenly aware that appropriately targeted medication can be a lifesaver, and the wrong medications can do harm. My mother was on the receiving end of the latest, greatest medications prescribed by doctors truly trying to help to her though limited by the models and theories of their day, and the available medications.
The veterinary field is lagging behind what’s known in human medicine. Keep an eye on both. And watch particularly for Big Buckets, an approach that lumps things together that ought not be lumped together. As temperament researcher Jerome Kagan points out in The Temperamental Thread, had medicine lumped all cancers together in the single bucket of cancer, no cures or treatments for the highly individualized forms of cancer would have been discovered. Breast cancer does not act like bone cancer which does not act like skin cancer. (And even those are big buckets for the many different types of each of those categories.)
In a country where a frightening number of children are medicated for “behavior problems,” there is no mystery about why the market for similar medications for dogs continues to grow into huge business.
Treat the left side of the dog where necessary. No animal should suffer fear or distress because of what is in their mind, and how the world affects them. But know the difference between what needs to be addressed in non-medicinal ways, and what truly needs chemical assistance.