A trazodone a day keeps the scaries away… maybe

By Jennifer Abrams LVT, ACAAB and Sarah Byosiere PhD

shelter dog stress
Cierra Voelkl / Unsplash

Gone are the days of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, when dog catchers rounded up strays and took them to dog pounds to sit in cages. Animal shelters are increasingly staffed by caring and committed animal lovers, have welfare conferences, veterinary shelter medicine specializations, and many even have enrichment programs.

Yet, even with these improvements, animal shelters — especially large, open-admission, municipal shelters — are inherently stressful places where even well-adjusted pets can shut down physically and behaviorally. 

So what can be done to help these anxious pets? In 2018, the Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC), New York City’s only open-admission animal shelter system, began a trial of using low-dose trazodone to ease their dogs’ transition into the shelter environment.

What is trazodone?

Trazodone is an antidepressant often prescribed for generalized anxiety disorders and specific phobias (for example, those triggered by loud noises, such as thunderstorms) in dogs. The transition into a shelter may function as a similar stressor; everything a dog was once comfortable with, and in control of, is jarringly removed, and novelty becomes the norm.

How can trazodone help improve shelter pets’ health?

In addition to the environmental stress, shelter-housed pets get sick easily as a result of exposure to novel germs, a high viral load in the environment, stress-weakened immune systems, or a combination of all three. What’s more, the rate of contagious illness may be linked to immunosuppression caused by high levels of stress.

The first step in combating this is for shelters to meet their pets’ basic veterinary and behavioral care needs and put enrichment policies into place to minimize stress. But once that’s been done, could trazodone help pets even more? One study suggests that such a step could be the answer. 

To find out, we worked with the ACC, which has full veterinary and behavior teams in each shelter to provide for their animals’ physical and mental needs, as well as an extensive enrichment program and one of the highest placement rates in the nation for a large city municipal facility. Despite these measures, however, rates of contagious respiratory illness remain high at ACC, particularly canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC) or kennel cough.

How did we test the theory?

To test whether trazodone could help reduce the number of cases of CIRDC, we compared two groups in different time periods: dogs who received the drug and a group in the past who didn’t. In November and December 2018, all dogs received an appropriate dose of trazodone upon entering the shelter. In the control group — dogs who entered the shelter in November and December 2016 and 2017 — no dogs received trazodone.

What did we find?

We studied a total of 1,766 cases and compared the number of sick dogs in the No Trazodone and Trazodone groups, identifying a significant change in illness rates.

  • Fewer dogs in the Trazodone group (29.1%) were sick compared to the No Trazodone group (41.2%).
  • Dogs in the Trazodone group had a statistically significant shorter length of stay (average of 9.23 days) in the shelter than dogs in the No Trazodone group (average of 10.47 days).
  • Dogs in the Trazodone group had a higher rate of adoption (42.1%) compared to the No Trazodone group (30.4%).

What do these findings mean?

These findings suggest that there may be a new practical use for trazodone. Early intervention in a shelter is critical for a pet’s success, and trazodone may be a useful way to reduce pets’ stress in the shelter and improve their quality of life by indirectly affecting their immune suppression, and possibly improving their resistance to highly contagious illnesses like CIRDC. 

However, care should be taken when interpreting these results. First and foremost, to prevent the medication from being classified as a sedative, a relatively low dose should be administered within a short but critical time period. The goal is not to mask stress or behaviors, but rather to facilitate a smoother transition.

Moreover, trazodone should be used in tandem with other non-pharmacological protocols. It’s very important that other enrichment and stress-mitigating procedures are used within the shelter (e.g., conspecific playgroups, individual socialization sessions, music, quiet lights-out time overnight, scent enrichment, food puzzles).

In other words, this method is one of many in an arsenal of techniques that can be used — collectively and when all other possibilities have been exhausted — to set up a dog for success in a stressful environment.

A pre-print of the full study can be accessed here. Please feel free to contact the authors via email or ResearchGate.

Jennifer Abrams is a Behavior Consultant with Behavior Vets of NYC. She previously served as the Director of Animal Welfare at Animal Care Centers of NYC. She is a licensed veterinary technician and Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, with a master’s degree in Animal Behavior and Conservation from Hunter College. She is passionate about representing the shelter-animal population in the scientific literature on welfare and well-being.

Sarah Byosiere, PhD, is director of Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College, where she focuses on studying the behavior and cognition of domestic dogs and other canids. Her research evaluates a broad spectrum of issues, including, but not limited to, the function of the play bow, dogs’ susceptibility to visual illusions, optimal methods in dog training, and improving the lives of shelter dogs.