New research from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has found that the three breeds at the highest risk of being prescribed a drug to manage undesirable behaviours were the Toy Poodle, Tibetan Terrier and Shih-Tzu. The study also revealed that the most common undesirable behaviours among dogs that were treated with drug therapy were anxiousness, dementia-like behaviour changes and nervousness aggression.
Undesirable behaviours in dogs are common but important issues with potentially serious welfare consequences for both the dogs, for example euthanasia or rehoming, and their owners, for example, bite injuries and property damage.
The research, which is the largest study of its kind to date, explored the use of drug therapy for undesirable behaviours in dogs, using veterinary clinical data from more than 100,000 dogs across the UK. With one in every 250 dogs medically treated with drug therapy for an undesirable behaviour each year, only 2.2 percent of those dogs that received drug therapy for an undesirable behaviour in the practice were referred to a behaviourist during the study period.
This is an important finding as it highlights the need to improve the welfare of these dogs through greater understanding and veterinary expertise in the prevention and management of undesirable behaviours in the primary veterinary care setting. This includes encouraging referrals to accredited behavioural specialists where appropriate, to optimise the quality of life of dogs with undesirable behaviours, and their caregivers.
The need for veterinary intervention to manage undesirable behaviours in dogs is likely to increase further in the coming years, with other research showing undesirable behaviour in dogs has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is hoped that this new RVC research can raise awareness of the current scale of drug usage for behavioural issues in first opinion veterinary practice as well as flagging potentially missed opportunities for suitable behavioural modification.
Annabel Craven, lead author of the paper, said: “The use of the VetCompass data in this study has provided an invaluable insight into the management of undesirable behaviours in the primary care setting. The relatively low frequency of dogs treated with a drug for undesirable behaviour could suggest that opportunities for useful psychopharmaceutical intervention are being missed.”
Dr Dan O’Neill, co-author and associate professor of companion animal epidemiology at the RVC, said: “Dogs are complex creatures that we force to live in human environments. This study shows that many dogs struggle to cope with our high human demands for how we want them to behave. To help dogs to live happier lives, we may need to focus more on the needs of the dog and less on the desires of the human. Let’s all ‘become more dog’.”
Dr Rowena Packer, co-author and lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare science at the RVC, said: “Despite previous reports of as many as 9 in every 10 UK dogs showing undesirable behaviours, this study has shown how few go on to receive medical and/or behavioural therapy. Given that undesirable behaviours pose risks to not only the mental well-being and lifespan of dogs, but also to owners’ mental health, public health and the dog-owner bond, effective and timely treatment is vital from a ‘One Health’ perspective.
“Therefore, it is key that increased provision and guidance around this important and growing area of veterinary education is available to primary-care vets to ensure they feel well-equipped to advise on veterinary behaviour medicine and all the options available to owners and their dogs.”
The RVC conducted this study using its world-leading analytics programme, VetCompass, to explore the de-identified clinical records of 103,597 dogs in the UK during 2013. From this data, the researchers identified that 404 dogs had received at least one drug to treat an undesirable behaviour.
Three breeds in particular – including the Toy Poodle (2.8 times the risk), Tibetan Terrier (2.7 times the risk) and Shih-Tzu (2.0 times the risk) – were identified as more likely to get prescription medication to manage their undesirable behaviours compared with crossbred dogs. Breeds of a smaller body size overall were at no more risk than larger breeds. However, increased age and being male heightened the risk of dogs being prescribed drugs for their undesirable behaviour.
Other key findings from the study include:
- The most common undesirable behaviours that were treated with behaviour modifying drugs were anxiousness (11.9 percent), dementia-like behaviour changes (10.4 percent) and nervous aggression (8.7 percent)
- The most frequently prescribed drugs for undesirable behaviour were acepromazine maleate (ACP) (32.1 percent), diazepam (Valium) (20.6 percent) and propentofylline (12.9 percent)
- Older dogs showed increased risk of being prescribed drugs for their undesirable behaviour, with dogs greater than or equal to 12 years showing 3.1 times the risk compared with dogs less than 3 years
- Neutered males (1.8 times the risk) and entire males (1.5 times the risk) had increased risk compared with entire females
- An undesirable behaviour was reported to contribute to euthanasia (being put to sleep) in 48.4 percent of deaths of the dogs that showed an undesirable behaviour