A cure for Rover's anxiety

Bad puppies die young.

Pets with behavior problems die because people don't want them. Unhappy owners abandon ferocious Fidos on the street or dump them in the nearest animal shelter. And that's the end, for many of them.

"Pet deaths caused by infectious, neoplastic (all the cancers) and metabolic disease (like diabetes) don't touch the number of pets killed because of behavior problems," said Karen Overall, V.M.D and director of the Veterinary Hospital (VHUP) Behavior Clinic, the busiest animal behavior clinic in North America.

But thanks to Overall (V'83), there's help for many of these pets and their owners.

Overall with her dog Emma, an Australian shepherd who does not require anti-anxiety medication

Overall was the primary clinician in trials for the first and only drug to receive the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval for animal behavior problems. The FDA approved the drug, which goes by the trade name Clomicalm, after Christmas, and like most drugs used on animals, it was originally developed for humans.

But with its own labeling now detailing the dosages and side effects for animals, it's just the prescription for a pet with separation anxiety - a pet that chews the rug or, worse yet, eliminates on it, when the owner is absent.

With FDA approval, the drug manufacturer, Novartis Animal Health, now provides the medication in styles - in this case beef-flavored and chewable - and in dosage sizes appropriate for animals.

In a world with so-called cherry flavoring that resembles no fruit known to man, Overall wondered about the beef taste. "You want to ask the animals, Does this really taste like beef?"

With most drugs administered to animals without FDA approval and appropriate labeling, veterinary doctors have learned to cope. "The pharmacy [at VHUP] got used to recompounding," Overall said, thus making correct dosages available to smaller animals, larger dosages to larger ones. They also made the medicine easier for animals to accept by mixing it with things like clam juice, tuna juice, or something sweet.

The anxiety of pet owners over their anxious pets has at times driven Overall to exhaustion. Business at the Behavior Clinic is so brisk - seeing 500 to 800 clients a year - that only the most urgent cases get seen.

The demand is high not just because dada is gaga over Fifi. It's because dada heard that Overall's clinic delivers. For example, of the animals in the Clomicalm trials, 90 percent are better.

Client demand for the kind of treatment animal behaviorists offer far exceeds the service avialable. Overall is one of only 18 board-certified animal behaviorists in North America.

Although client demand drives the field, owner anxiety is not what needs treatment when animals and their owners come to the Behavior Clinic. Ninety percent of the time it's the animals who are abnormal, Overall said.

For these animals, having a drug that's been tested and calibrated for animal use is a blessing. "I've been using this drug for over a decade. I was able to say the following will happen. But with the study, then you know you're not making it up. ... It's so nice to know what happens in the therapeutic range."

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Originally published on April 15, 1999