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Drugs for Shelter Dogs

NYC shelters to medicate all incoming strays
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2018, Updated June 2021
Drugs for Shelter Dogs

Dogs entering shelters are often extremely stressed, with cortisol levels three times higher than dogs in home situations. Reducing that stress is a kindness to these animals, and shelters use a lot of strategies to do that. From soothing music and lavender-scented infusers to comfy kennels with blankets and chairs to make them seem homey, there are a lot of options for helping dogs ease into life at a shelter. The goals are to help them as much as possible during their stay, and to place them into loving homes soon. Few of the stress-easing plans are controversial, but Animal Care Shelters of NYC has three shelters that will soon be enacting a new protocol that is bound to cause serious debate.

Every incoming stray dog to these shelters will be given two doses of an anti-anxiety medication called trazodone. This drug is commonly prescribed for dogs who are uncomfortable with stressors such as visits to the veterinarian, fireworks or thunderstorms. Since stress can have negative effects on immune function, it may help prevent health problems.

The goal of this new program is to make the intake process, medical evaluation and behavioral assessment less stressful. A spokesperson for the shelter has commented that the drug will help calm their nerves but will not change their personality, and by easing their stress, their true nature will be revealed, and the staff can see who the dog really is.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective, and some people are concerned about giving dogs medication in the absence of any knowledge of their medical history. Others have pointed out that the effects of the medication could interfere with shelter workers’ ability to evaluate a dog’s personality and behavior accurately.


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It’s common for people who have adopted dogs to discover out that the dog they have is acting differently in the home than in the shelter. Behavioral changes after adoption are far from unusual as behavior is context specific, and changes can happen for many reasons. Some dogs are so overwhelmed by the sounds and smells of a shelter that they shut down. Many take days or weeks to adjust to a new situation, so their personality and behavior show up only gradually once adopted.

It’s not always possible to know the reason for changes observed in a dog after adoption. However, if new guardians find out that drugs were given to their dog while at the shelter, they are likely to believe that the medication disguised the dog’s true self, whether that is actually the case or not. New adopters may consider the situation a bait-and-switch, be very unhappy, and return the dog. The result could be that they will avoid adopting from that—or any other—shelter in the future.

It is possible that medicating incoming stray dogs will be highly beneficial for some dogs, but not for others, and a lot of the criticism of the new policy reflects discomfort with giving medication to every stray dog that enters the shelter rather than on a case-by-case basis. It would be wonderful if the shelters committed to study the effects of the new medication protocol on adoption rates and return rates. That would require that a large number of dogs not be medicated (as a control group) and that their outcomes are compared to those dogs who are medicated.

What do you think about giving anti-anxiety medication to every stray dog entering these shelters in NYC?

Photo: Freestocks / Unsplash

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life