Amitriptyline for Dogs – Is Medication a Good Way to Calm Your Nervous Pet? - Simply For Dogs
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Amitriptyline for Dogs – Is Medication a Good Way to Calm Your Nervous Pet?

Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwyer, DVM on January 06, 2019

Nervous dogs can wreak total havoc on your household, and leave you with just about two nerves of your own, both of which are hanging by tiny, thin little threads. Worse, though, is that you know your best buddy is suffering. So what can you do to help? Do amitriptyline and dogs go well together, or is this course of treatment better left alone? Are there better medications? Is no medication at all the better course of action?

First, let me offer up the caveat that I definitely don’t want to see anything remotely resembling a “Prozac Nation” for dogs. I think that, as a society, we rely entirely too much on medication for every little thing. If your nerves are a bit jangled, you’re probably a lot better off with a soothing cup of chamomile tea, or maybe some vigorous exercise, than you are with psychotropic medications.

That said, though, I also wouldn’t want to be lumped in with the “Tom Cruises” of the world, who think that medications for anxiety or depression should never be used. When the condition is severe, there’s certainly much to be said in favor of helpful medications. This is true for dogs as well as for humans.

What is Amitryptiline?

In order to best understand how amitryptiline could help your dog, it’s useful to start with a discussion of what amitryptiline is, and how it is used to treat humans as well as canines. How exactly does amitryiptilinework, and what are the potential drawbacks to taking the medication? We’ll also talk briefly about other antidepressants.

Amitriptyline is the generic form of the brand name drug Elavil. As you might guess from the name, the purpose of the drug is to elevate the patient’s mood. It does this by regulating norepinephrine and serotonin, thatact as neurotransmitters.

What is a Neurotransmitter? How Does it Work?

Neurotransmitters are natural chemicals that are stored in the brain. When released, a neurotransmitter causes impulses to pass from one nerve cell to another. This is how nerve cells are able to communicate with one another. Neurotransmitters can facilitate communication between nerve cells either directly or indirectly, and when the messages are flowing improperly, behavior can be adversely affected. Neurotransmitters work in the canine brain in essentially the same way as they do in the human brain, so the medications that are used to treat chemical imbalances in the human brain work essentially the same way in your dog’s brain.

Nerve impulses move by passing through an axon, which is a long, slender cell. Ultimately, the nerve impulse reaches the presynaptic membrane. This is where the neurotransmitters are stored as they wait to be “told” to enter the synaptic cleft, there to be attached to receptors. That’s if everything works the way it should. Sometimes, though, things don’t work as nature, or God, or whatever, intended them to.

In some humans, and also in other animals, the neurotransmitters fail to flow properly. As an example, in cases of clinical depression, the problem is that the neurotransmitter, serotonin, is not flowing to the synaptic cleft – instead, it travels back to the site of origin where it builds up. In order to correct this problem, physicians (and veterinarians) may prescribe what is known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor – SSRI.

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What Antidepressants are SSRIs?

SSRI medications have become so ubiquitous in modern society that they’re practically household words – who hasn’t heard of Prozac (generic name fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline)? Other common SSRI medications include Lexapro (escitalopram), Paxil (paroxetine), Celexa (citalopram) and Vibryd (vilazodone). Perhaps you take one of these medications, or you know someone who does, and you’re wondering if they could help your anxious dog.

Can Dogs Take SSRI Medications?

SSRI meds are often used to treat canine behavioral issues. Administered under close veterinary supervision, they can be helpful in treating anxiety, aggression, and compulsive behavior like excessive scratching and chewing. However, it’s worth noting that sometimes the side effects can be such that the behavior that is being treated can actually escalate – in humans, for instance, the medications that are meant to ease anxiety can actually lead to more anxiety. And in dogs that are being treated for aggression, SSRI medications can actually increase aggression.

Is Amitryptilinea SSRI?

Amitriptyline is not technically a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor – it is a tricyclic antidepressant. This type of antidepressant actually pre-dates SSRIs by about 40 years. It works not just by changing the brain chemistry to prevent the buildup of serotonin, but also by essentially re-wiring the circuitry of the nerve cells in order to improve the mood of the patient. Although most patients are now treated using SSRIs, tricyclic antidepressants are often effective when SSRIs fail to work.

The downside to tricyclic antidepressants is that they work on other neurotransmitters in addition to norepinephrine and serotonin. This means that tricyclic antidepressants can have more side effects than SSRIs. This is true with canine patients as well as human patients. So is amitryptiline okay for dogs? Keep reading as we explore the issue in greater depth.

Are There Side Effects When Amitriptyline is Used for Dogs?

Amitryptiline is a powerful medication, and it can be very beneficial for both humans and canines. However, it is not without side effects, so if your veterinarian prescribes amitryptiline for your dog, you’re going to have to be very conscientious when it comes to identifying how the medication is affecting him. You may find that your dog experiences side effects for a while, and that they go away eventually. The main thing is to be alert to the severity of the side effects, because your dog is not going to be able to tell you if the medication is causing more harm than good.

Humans (and dogs) can take many medications without having to worry about side effects. In fact, side effects often occur when the medication is not taken as directed. If your veterinarian has prescribed amitryptiline for your dog, you will need to give it time to work. You might see results in just a few days, but the reality is that tricyclic antidepressants can often take up to a month to reach maximum efficacy. Please resist the temptation to increase the dosage without consulting your vet – you could cause serious harm to your dog by doing so.

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The following is an alphabetical list of some of the most common side effects that can result from using amitryptiline. It is extensive, but take this in the context that if even 1% of users report a side effect, it makes the list. Possible amitryptiline side effects include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Change in appetite
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Dry Mouth
  • Flushing
  • Headaches
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Mild weakness
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Weight gain

There are also more severe side effects. Fortunately, they’re even less likely to occur than those previously listed. They include:

  • Aggression
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Eye pain
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased anxiety or agitation
  • Increase or decrease in sexual function
  • Increased or decreased sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Shuffling walk
  • Seizures
  • Skin rash
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting

Obviously, you’re not going to know if your dog feels as though he’d like to die, and you might not be overly concerned about your dog’s sexual prowess or lack thereof. And since he doesn’t speak to begin with, he’s not likely going to find doing so any more difficult than he ever did. However, if you notice any of the other side effects on this second list, discontinue the amitriptyline immediately, and take your dog to the vet immediately. Keep in mind, too, that some side effects of amitriptyline in dogs can be hard to identify – if he’s pawing at his ears or eyes, though, that indicates discomfort. You should be able to feel an irregular heartbeat. You know your dog well enough to tell if he’s confused. You get the idea.

Amitriptyline for Dogs

When Should a Dog Not Take Amitryptiline?

The conditions that would preclude a dog taking amitriptyline are essentially the same as those that would make it inadvisable for a human. If you have been taking your dog to the same veterinarian since he was a puppy, then your canine health provider should be well aware of any issues that your dog has that could make amitriptyline an unsafe choice. If you have changed veterinarians, though, make sure to tell your new provider if your dog has any of the following conditions:

  • A history of heart problems
  • An enlarged prostate
  • Poor liver function
  • Blood disorders
  • Gluacoma
  • Urinary retention
  • Seizures
  • Thyroid disease

Additionally, if your dog is scheduled for any type of surgery, ask your vet about the advisability of discontinuing, or cutting back on, the use of amitriptyline for a while. There is a risk of developing an abnormal heart rhythm both during and following surgical procedures. Keep in mind, though, that if your dog has been taking amitryptiline for a long time, he could experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms will be much the same as they are in humans, and could include difficulty sleeping, restlessness and irritability. It doesn’t mean that your dog is an addict – well, actually, it kind of does, since he’s become dependent – but basically, it just means that tapering off is generally the best course of action if the medication has been in use for a prolonged period.

Amitriptyline should never be administered to a pregnant or nursing bitch. You can safely assume that there will be no good outcome if this powerful medication is passed on to the puppies. For that matter, it’s worth noting that if you have a dog that is taking amitryptiline to help with issues like anxiety or aggression, then it would probably be best not to breed the dog in the first place.

Amitriptyline may also not be the best thing for your dog depending on what other medications he’s taking. For instance, if your dog is taking ASA (acetylsalicylic acid) for pain issues, it could react adversely with the amitriptyline. Certain antifungal medications also don’t go well with tricyclic antidepressants. And if you’re one of those people who likes to give your dog a dose of Gravol to relax him before a road trip, please don’t – amitriptyline does not go well with anything that causes sedation. This goes for herbal remedies like Saint John’s wort, too.

There may be other medications as well that could interact adversely with the amitriptyline that you are giving your dog. As always, your veterinarian is the best source of advice when it comes to your dog’s medical treatment, and it would be a rare vet who wouldn’t prefer to have you ask questions about possible interactions rather than have to try to save your dog’s life because you got it wrong.

So Is Amitryptiline Good for My Dog?

In addition to calming your dog’s nerves, amitriptyline can have very beneficial effects on some behavioral issues that you may have been struggling with. Many dog owners report that, after beginning a regimen of amitriptyline, their dogs are less likely to dig up the yard or destroy household items. Incessant yapping no longer happens, and submissive urination stops. Of course, not all these behaviors are going to magically disappear in all dogs, but there should still be a dramatic improvement in problematic behavior.

We’ve already talked about side effects, but it’s worth reiterating that it’s very rare for a medication not to have at least the potential for side effects, and amitriptyline is no exception. If your dog’s nervousness and/or behavioral issues are so severe as to be untreatable by means of training, positive reinforcement and other non-medicinal remedies, your vet might very well recommend amitriptyline. He or she should tell you about the potential side effects, but the foregoing information should tell you much of what you need to know.

As we have seen, some potential side effects of amitriptyline are relatively minor. Your dog might develop a dry mouth; you can suspect that this is the case if he’s panting a lot, licking his lips frequently, and drinking more water than usual. He might be considerably sleepier than he usually is. He might also become constipated, vomit more than usual, and have a suppressed appetite. It’s also possible that his heart rate will increase somewhat, and his blood pressure might become lowered.

Don’t think that this is all gloom and doom – in fact, it is rare that amitriptyline will cause serious side effects. However, just to recap, it has been linked to seizures, muscle weakness and heart conditions. Bear in mind, though, that these side effects are not common.

If your vet does prescribe amitriptyline for your dog, you’ll need to make sure that his condition is monitored regularly. The vet will want to do blood tests from time to time to monitor the condition of your dog’s liver since extended use of the medication has been known to adversely affect liver function.

If your dog is extremely nervous, panics when loud noises occur, displays obsessive-compulsive behavior patterns like excessive grooming, or suffers from separation anxiety, amitriptyline could help. It’s an anti-depressant, and it works essentially the same way on dogs as it does on humans.

As we discussed earlier, SSRIs prevent the brain from retaining too much serotonin. With amitriptyline, though, the medication works by increasing the brain’s production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, heart function, behavior, and other bodily functions. When the amount of serotonin is increased, feelings of contentment and calm are produced. Accordingly, your dog feels less nervous, more relaxed, and less likely to experience panic attacks. In other words, amitriptyline works the same way in dogs as it does in humans.

Properly used, amitriptyline is safe for your dog. However, as with any type of medication, you need to be cautious. You won’t be able to obtain amitriptyline without a prescription from your veterinarian, and you can assume that the vet will want to thoroughly examine your dog and try to get to the root of the problem before prescribing the medication. It would be unwise to show up at the animal hospital and simply announce that your dog is on edge and you want amitriptyline for him. There’s more to it than that.

What is the Proper Dosage of Amitriptyline for Dogs?

When humans are prescribed amitriptyline, the usual course of action is for the doctor to begin with a fairly low dose if the patient’s symptoms are not all that severe. If the patient is having suicidal thoughts, though, the doctor will start with a high dose and then reduce it as the patient’s symptoms begin to improve. Most adult humans respond well to a dosage of anywhere from 75 to 100 milligrams of amitriptyline per day, spread out over three doses. The dosage doesn’t just depend on the severity of the symptoms, though – there are a lot of other things factored in, like the patient’s body weight, other medications that are being taken, and pre-existing medical conditions. The optimum dosage can vary significantly from one human to another.

It’s the same with amitriptyline for dogs – of course the dosage for an average canine is going to be much lower than it is for the average human, but there are other factors that need to be considered. Your vet is the best person to determine the right dose of amitriptyline for your dog. One thing that you should absolutely never do is become an armchair diagnostician and decide on your own that your dog needs amitriptyline. You should also never follow this by thinking something along the lines of “Well, Cousin Bobby isn’t taking amitriptyline anymore, and he has all these pills left over, so if Bobby weighs 120 pounds, and he’s taking a 25 milligram tablet three times a day, and Fluffy weighs 60 pounds, so if Bobby gives me his leftover medication and I cut a tablet in half…” Trust us, no good is going to come of this.

Don’t give your dog any medication that is not prescribed by your vet. And don’t mess with the dosage. If you think Fluffy is still feeling anxious, resist the temptation to increase the dosage without consulting the vet first – you want to help your dog, not make him sick or even kill him.

How Is Amitriptyline Administered?

Your vet will give you the medication in a bottle labeled with the correct dosage and the intervals at which you will administer it. He or she will also explain how much you should give your dog, and how often you should give it. Remember, though, that the label is only there to serve as a reminder of what the vet communicates to you. So if anything looks wrong, or different, on the label, ask the vet to clarify – mistakes can happen. They don’t happen often, but you don’t want to take chances with your dog’s health and safety. Also, if you get home and realize that you’re not 100% sure what you should be doing, call the animal hospital for clarification – never make guesses.

You should give your dog the amitriptyline for as long as the vet recommends. Never assume that he’s all better and no longer needs the medication. Humans who try to stop taking their amitriptyline “cold turkey” often suffer from very nasty withdrawal symptoms, and so could your dog.

Also, if your dog’s symptoms don’t clear up immediately, don’t increase the dosage without approval from your veterinarian. The body, both in humans and in canines, usually has to go through a bit of a “learning curve” before it begins to respond to the medication. So administer the amitriptyline only as directed (usually you’ll give a dose once or twice a day). Try to give the medication at the same time every day. If you miss a dose, don’t “double up” or give two doses close together. Just skip the dose that you missed, and resume the schedule at the next dose.

Quick Q&A

Now you know pretty much everything you need to know about using amitriptyline for your dog’s anxiety or behavioral disorders. You might be wondering about other medications, though, so here’s a quick 10 questions and answers for you.

1. Can dogs take Prozac?

Yes, dogs can take Prozac. In fact, many veterinarians prescribe this SSRI medication for separation anxiety. The medication is known to reduce “acting out” behaviors like urinating in the house, tearing up furniture and compulsive barking.

2. Can dogs take Zoloft?

Zoloft is a very effective, very safe drug. It’s often recommended for dogs that have aggression issues, and also known to reduce compulsive behavior like chewing and scratching at the skin.

3. Can dogs take Paxil?

Paxil has proven to be very effective in combating aggression, as well as helping dogs that experience great anxiety during thunderstorms. If a thunder shirt isn’t doing the job, then your vet might recommend Paxil for your dog.

4. Can dogs take Lexapro?

Dogs can take Lexapro, but only under rigorous veterinary supervision. While Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil are very safe, Lexapro is known to have significant side effects including tremors, sedation, lack of coordination and even seizures. Veterinarians are typically willing to prescribe Lexapro only when other remedies fail to work.

5. Can dogs take Celexa?

It’s not a good idea. It’s too hard to identify the “tipping point” between a safe dosage and an overdose. For this reason, veterinarians are reluctant to prescribe Celexa for dogs.

6. Can dogs use marijuana for anxiety?

While we wouldn’t recommend feeding marijuana edibles to your dog, or allowing him to get into your stash (hey, no judgments here even if you do live in a no-weed state), the research does suggest that cannabis oil, administered under veterinary supervision, can be as effective as anti-depressants when it comes to anxious dogs.

7. Can dogs take Saint John’s Wort?

Many people prefer to go with herbal remedies as opposed to prescription medications to treat their anxiety. Dogs can also benefit from herbs like Saint John’s wort. A holistic veterinarian will be able to tell you the proper dosage for your dog.

8. Is medication always the answer for an anxious dog?

It doesn’t have to be. If a dog’s anxiety is so severe that it’s interfering with his quality of life, then a medication like amitriptyline may be best for your dog. It should be the last resort, though – used only when lots of love, attention and training aren’t getting the job done.

9. My vet says I’m nuts – my dog just needs to be disciplined. Is he right?

Maybe, but probably not. If your vet ranks low on the empathy scale, it might be time to find another vet. If you agree with your vet, though, and you think you might have been a little slack about training, there are a lot of good books out there that you can read that will help you to train your dog. Click here to find one of the best dog training books available.

10. Will amitriptyline destroy my dog’s personality?

No. Properly administered, a medication like amitriptyline for your dog can actually release the calm, steady personality he was meant to have. He’ll feel more relaxed and focused, and he’ll be a more loving companion to you, and a better canine citizen overall.

Your dog may need medication like amitriptyline, or not. Dogs are a lot like humans, not just in how they respond to medications, but in their own unique personalities. What works for one dog may not work for another.

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The Final Word

It’s not much fun dealing with an anxious dog. However, your dog isn’t having fun either, so treat him with love and kindness. He’s not behaving badly because he’s a “bad dog”; he’s just a good dog who’s having a bad time! So, spend lots of time with him, give him plenty of hugs and cuddles, take him for walks, play with him, and just love him. Amitriptyline can be very effective in combating anxiety and behavioral problems, but you need to be a strong, caring owner for your dog to achieve the maximum benefit from the medication.

In short, amitriptyline can be a good thing for your dog. But it’s meant to work with proper training and a close relationship, not instead of those very important things. You want what’s best for your dog, and if that means a medication like amitriptyline, then that’s what your dog should have. Just make sure that you and your vet are on the same page with this. The side effects of amitriptyline are rare, but not unheard of, and generally speaking, it’s best to consider other courses of action before medicating your dog.

As we said in the beginning of this article, we don’t want to be like Tom Cruise, claiming that medications are never the answer. Sometimes they are, and Brooke Shields should have given him a good slap upside the head and a kick in the … well, you know … for suggesting that she shouldn’t have taken medication for her post-partum depression. Tom, when you’ve had post-partum depression, then you’re qualified to talk – not before.

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That said, we don’t want to see a “Puppy Prozac Nation” if there’s an alternative. Remember, though, that most of the time, dogs aren’t being perverse – perversity is simply not in their nature. So if your dog is barking incessantly, tearing up your furniture, chewing at his legs or pawing compulsively at his ears, chances are that something is bothering him in a huge way. He wants your help. He needs your help. So do for him what you would do for the humans that you love – get him the medical attention that he requires, and if necessary, the medication that will correct the problem.

What’s the final word here? Amitriptyline if necessary, but not necessarily amitriptyline. You and your vet know best.