Desperate to deal with her dog’s destructive behavior, Leah Grape turned to popping pills — not for herself but for her pooch.

A generic form of the antidepressant Prozac was a way to calm her Kobe, a Doberman mix who suffered from severe separation anxiety.

“When he broke off his canine teeth in the crate and he was urinating every time I left the house and it was getting worse as he got older, I had to do something,” the Phoenix resident said.

Prescribing human-type antidepressants such as Prozac, Valium, Zanex and Buspar for dogs and cats is becoming more common, according to veterinarians.

The drugs have downsides: They’re expensive. Extra monitoring of a pet’s health may be required. And solving a behavior problem may require more effort than just administering a pill.

Still, Bonnie Beaver, an animal behaviorist at Texas A&M University, said demand for the drugs has increased with public awareness.

Because antidepressants are thought to work the same on an animal’s brain chemistry as they do in people, vets prescribe them primarily for dogs that are showing inappropriate, destructive and self-injuring behavior.

Separation anxiety, extreme reactions to thunderstorms and other noises and obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as incessant barking or licking are all common signs that a dog may be in an emotional fix.

Cats, more typically, urinate inappropriately by refusing to use a litter box.

Clomicalm, manufactured by Novartis and released about six years ago, is the only FDA-approved antidepressant for dogs as a treatment for separation anxiety.

However, the treatment is far from cheap. Pills for a medium to large dog sell for about $100 for a twice-a-day, one-month supply.

Other drugs are being administered off-label, meaning they have not been put through trials required for FDA approval for use in specific animals.

Clomipromine is a popular, much cheaper off-label substitute for Clomicalm, retailing for about a third the cost of Clomicalm.

Physical symptoms possible

Kelly Moffat, a veterinarian and board-certified behaviorist with Veterinary Centers of America in Mesa, Ariz., said she has a special empathy for pets with severe behavioral issues and for their owners.

“I have a little Yorkie that I found on the street who is noise phobic,” she said. “It started with the smoke alarm beeping but then any sound, even my daughter coughing, set him off and he would tremble and shake.”

Vomiting and bloody diarrhea soon accompanied the trembling and shaking.

“He lost so much weight that I put him on antidepressants to keep him alive,” she said.

But don’t expect reputable veterinarians like Moffat or others to turn into a Dr. Feelgood for Fido or Fluffy without just cause.

“I tell people that I’m not just going to give them pills to go home with but rather they need to have a plan, too,” said veterinarian Brian Serbin of Ingleside Animal Hospital in Phoenix.

“A lot of these things are long term, and this is not a quick fix or the silver bullet,” he said.

“I’m not against the drugs, but you have to use them with behavior modification and exercise.”

Before pet owners were aware of antidepressants, he suspects many owners dumped troubled dogs at pounds or put them to sleep.

Veterinarian William Bracken of Arcadia Animal Hospital in Phoenix said he, too, is selective when it comes to dispensing antidepressants, and like Serbin, does a blood work and urinalysis first to rule out any medical conditions.

Cats can be an exception.

“It takes time to determine the problem, which can be frustrating. But if they’re urinating all over the house, then maybe you’d jump on the medication a little quicker,” he said.

liver problems lurk

Monitoring the animal while on the drug, particularly its liver function, is also critical.

“Some long-term use can cause health problems. And when you take them off, you also need to do it very slowly,” Bracken said.

Dealing with behavioral problems in his patients is not something Bracken, who has practiced veterinary medicine for 14 years, was specifically trained to do. Which is why with tough cases he’s apt to call in behavioral experts like Brad Jaffe of Team Canine in Phoenix.

“People tend to look at dog behavior from a human standpoint,” Jaffe said. “If the dog is acting hyper or destructive, then they are automatically considered bad. But is it a dog being bad or one not trained or is it deeper than that?”

By visiting the dog in the home, Jaffe has a better chance of finding the right answer.

“And what we’ve found over the last five years with severe separation anxiety or overactivity is that more and more of it is due to biochemical issues; something is off inside their body,” he said.

Using a nutritionist, Jaffe has the dog’s fur analyzed.

“And then we can tell by the biochemistry of their body what’s going on and through nutrition and supplements we can balance them,” he said.

Exercise helps

Longtime pet owners like Annie DeChance of Phoenix are more inclined to use behavior modification along with heavy doses of exercise such agility, fly ball (tennis ball relay races), fly disc (Frisbee) or herding to lower her dogs’ anxiety levels.

“You need to understand that there’s a time commitment involved on behalf of the owner,” she said. “But things like this challenge dogs both mentally and physically.”

Most of the time when dogs are anxious, chew, dig or do other naughty things, it’s because they are bored, she said.

DeChance said the first time she took her anxious dog Joey to an agility class, he slept all the way home.

“He was usually very anxious driving in the car, but after the class he was mentally and physically exhausted,” she said.