On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I sat in line at the drive-through of our neighborhood CVS pharmacy. I was running late, the line wasn’t moving, and I needed to pick up only one prescription: my dog’s Prozac.
I was the third car in line, and the car at the front seemed to be camped out at the window, clearly negotiating something as complex as tax reform rather than just dropping off a prescription. I glanced at the clock. I was in danger of being late to pick up my daughter from her pop star class. It was a great moment for a minor mid-life crisis. This is ridiculous, I thought. Pop star class! Doggie antidepressants! What am I doing with my life? I have multiple degrees! But it was supposed to snow again the next day. I considered being cooped up with a six-year-old and my dog without his mood stabilizer. I started madly texting the other moms from the class to see if any of them could stay with my daughter if I was late. Then, as I kept waiting, I consoled myself with the idea that there were quite a few pet owners out there who could relate to me.
Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is an expert in behavioral pharmacology who helped pioneer the technique of giving human behavioral medications to dogs.* Vets first began prescribing Prozac for dogs around 1990, he says, and it’s likely a more common practice today than it was even 10 years ago. In 2012 alone, an estimated 2.8 million dog owners gave their dogs calming or anxiety medicines, according to the National Pet Owners Survey of the American Pet Products Association.
The first time I dropped off the dog’s prescription, the technician had been completely unfazed. Clearly she’d had non-human patients before.
“Patient’s name?” she asked.
“Um, Nino Horowitz, but he’s a dog.”
“Date of birth?”
“Well, he’s a dog. We’re not exactly sure—”
“Date of birth please?”
“Um, just put November 1, 2005.”
“Really? He’s about 80 lbs.”
“He’s a dog!”
“Does he have insurance, please?” (Now I was second-guessing myself. Was he supposed to have insurance? Was I a delinquent pet owner? Was there some provision in Obamacare I wasn’t aware of that said even pets must have coverage?)
“No,” I mumbled. “He doesn’t have insurance.”
“The prescription will be ready in an hour.” She slid the glass window firmly shut.
We’d put the dog on Prozac just recently. He was eight years old, a mutt. He looked like a lab but was white with brown ears. The friend of a former co-worker found him in a box on the side of a road one freezing December night when he was about four weeks old. We adopted him when he was 11 weeks. He had anxiety issues from day one, which manifested themselves in excessive chewing, incessant barking, and a serious dislike of most other dogs.
We tried everything: obedience classes, behavioral therapists, hard-core training with former K-9 cops. We watched The Dog Whisperer obsessively. We bought him a doggie backpack, loaded its pockets with pickle jars for extra weight (as recommended by Cesar Millan), and walked him for miles. We invested in more than three types of collars (one costing $500) and even a Thunder Shirt (as seen on TV!). Nothing helped at all. The final straw was when he chewed through the plastic floor of his crate, and then not one but two doors, in an effort to escape when he was left alone for more than a couple of hours. After he’d yacked up pieces of door onto the carpet, we decided to finally try Prozac. It had always seemed somewhat ridiculous to us. But my father, a psychologist, had been hinting at it for years. It worked much better than anything we’d tried before.
Finally it was my turn at the CVS drive-through window. I groaned but dropped the $70 for his Prozac (generic).
The next morning, it was indeed snowing. My daughter’s school was closed. I sat down for a moment to check my email. The dog sat down in front of me, staring at me intently with his brown eyes. I tried to ignore him. He poked me in the knee with his big black nose. I focused on my email. He nosed me again. I tried not to look at him. He nosed me another time.
Then he walked over to our bookshelf. Sitting on it was the orange prescription bottle with his Prozac in it. He sat down, barked sharply, barked again. I recognized this behavior. He did this when he wanted a treat. My dog was begging for his meds.
What does it say about the state of our society when even our pets are begging for antidepressants, I wondered. This, I thought, was truly a first world problem. For a moment, the dogs of Sochi flashed in my mind, running rampant through the streets, just trying to find food, just trying to survive, and I felt a real qualm. Perhaps we in America really were ridiculous, over-medicating even our animals, too likely to reach for a pill as a solution to our problems, focusing on issues far beyond what was necessary for survival.
Then I looked at my dog. If he’d survived his initial abandonment, he too would have ended up on the streets. Perhaps what it says about our society when even our dogs are on Prozac is that we are lucky. Most dog owners here in America are probably like me, grateful to be in a position and place to make a difference in an animal’s life and to have the opportunity to offer it any medicine that helped it. I walked over and popped the Prozac in his mouth. He sat contentedly by the bookcase, his legs splayed, tail gently thwapping against the floor. I realized I didn’t care if it was ridiculous. I was just happy he’d stopped eating doors.
Correction, March 18, 2014: This post originally misspelled Nicholas Dodman's last name.