Sedatives for Dogs: How and When to Use Them Safely

Canine behavior can be inscrutable at times. Why do some dogs fall apart at the mere mention of going to the “v-e-t” while others walk through the door without a care in the world? And what about the nail decorations? Does your dog take them easily or show his best impression of Cujo? When faced with an anxious, aggressive, or just hyperactive dog, pet parents often crave a sedative (of course, for their dogs). But is this the correct answer?

Sedatives can play a role in helping dogs relax, but drugs are often misused. Let’s look at the common types of sedatives administered to dogs, how they work, and which ones are best in various circumstances.

Dealing with the underlying problem: anxiety in dogs

Anxiety, that feeling of nervousness, restlessness, or apprehension with which we are all familiar, is at the core of most behavioral problems in dogs. Sometimes anxiety is perfectly normal, but it becomes a problem when it is severe or frequent enough to have an adverse effect on the quality of life of the dog or the owner. If your dog is anxious, you may notice some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Tense muscles
  • Tremor
  • Panting
  • Attempts to escape from the situation, which can lead to destructive behavior.
  • Urination, defecation, release of the anal glands
  • Crouch or crouch close to the ground or try to hide in a “safe” place
  • Eyes wide open, sometimes with whites showing
  • Ears back

What to do about anxiety in dogs

Behavior modification is the best way to treat anxiety in dogs. These protocols generally involve teaching dogs to stay calm when exposed to mild versions of their triggers, rewarding them, and gradually increasing the intensity of their exposure as long as they remain calm.

However, sometimes it can be difficult for dogs to stay calm with even the mildest triggers. This is when medications and other anxiety relief products become invaluable. There are many over-the-counter options for mild anxiety, including:

  • Nutritional supplements like L-theanine, melatonin or S-adenosyl-methionine
  • synthetic pheromone preparations (for example, dog-appeasing pheromones or DAP)
  • body wraps that provide calming pressure

For moderate to severe anxiety, veterinarians turn to prescription anti-anxiety medications such as alprazolam, amitriptyline, buspirone, clomipramine, dexmedetomidine, diazepam, fluoxetine, lorazepam, paroxetine, sertraline, or trazodone.

Short-term sedative solutions for dogs

But what about cases where a dog’s behavior must be addressed before anxiety treatments can take effect or when they are inappropriate? What can be done for the hyperactive dog that needs to take it easy after surgery or the dog with a history of aggression that needs X-rays as soon as possible, for example? This is when a sedative might be a good idea.

Oral sedatives for dogs

Owners looking for a sedative to give their dogs at home have some limited options.

Acepromazine is the most commonly prescribed oral sedative for dogs. It is a member of the phenothiazine class of sedatives and works primarily by blocking dopamine receptors within the brain, which depresses certain brain functions. Unfortunately, acepromazine tablets can have highly variable effects on different individuals. Some dogs may not appear sedated at all, while others remain flat, even when given similar doses of the drug. Also, the onset and duration of the effect can be inconsistent and difficult to predict.

A potentially better option is to inject the liquid injectable form of acepromazine between the dog’s gums and cheek. The drug is absorbed through the oral mucous membranes and provides more reliable sedation. Regardless of how oral acepromazine is given, side effects such as low blood pressure and seizures may occur in people at risk.

Sometimes a vet will recommend a medicine that is traditionally used for other purposes for its sedating “side effects.” For example, the phenobarbital and gabapentin anticonvulsant medications are known to have a profound sedative effect when first administered to dogs, so they may also be prescribed for use prior to a potentially stressful event.

Treatment with more than one medication at a time will often improve a dog’s response to sedation. Possible combinations of oral sedatives include:

  • acepromazine and telazol powder (an anesthetic)
  • acepromazine and diazepam (an anti-anxiety medicine)
  • diazepam and butorphanol (an opioid pain reliever)
  • phenobarbital and diazepam
  • dexmedetomidine (an analgesic and pain reliever), ketamine (an anesthetic and pain reliever), and butorphanol.  This combination can absorb through the oral mucous membranes.

Injectable sedatives for dogs

Whenever possible, it is preferable to administer sedatives by injection before oral administration because a dog’s response tends to be faster and more predictable. Most of the oral medications mentioned above are also available for use by injection. Popular injectable sedatives and injectable sedative combinations for dogs include:

  • acepromazine
  • acepromazine and butorphanol
  • diazepam and butorphanol
  • Telazol
  • Telazol and butorphanol
  • dexmedetomidine (can be reversed with atipamezole)
  • dexmedetomidine, ketamine, and butorphanol (can be partially reversed with atipamezole)

Your dog’s vet can determine which sedative is best for your dog based on the problem that needs to be addressed and your dog’s overall health. Regardless of the medication prescribed, be sure to closely follow the dosage instructions provided, never give more sedative than recommended, and speak to your vet about any questions or concerns you may have.

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