Use of Behavioral Pharmacology for Animals in Shelters and Rescues


An animal’s good health and well-being depend on meeting both their physical and behavioral needs. To improve welfare and resolve behavior problems, veterinarians use a growing number of psychoactive medications (commonly referred to as behavior medications), originally developed for human use, that are also believed to benefit animals.

While a potentially useful tool, drug therapy is rarely enough on its own. Successfully addressing problematic behavior typically requires multiple interventions, including behavior modification, adjustment of the animal’s environment, use of low-stress handling and husbandry, and/or enrichment. Therefore, determining the best course of treatment for individual animals requires effective communication and close collaboration among animal behavior professionals, veterinarians, and animal care staff.

ASPCA Position

The ASPCA believes that psychoactive medication, in conjunction with enrichment, behavior modification, and other interventions, can be valuable for improving and/or maintaining behavioral health and may also help prevent behavioral deterioration. Though potentially beneficial, behavior medications should only be used after careful weighing of all relevant considerations. Improper choice of drug or dosage, a drug administered in the absence of a proper diagnosis, or the use of a drug without continuous monitoring can make an animal’s condition worse. In some cases, a drug’s undesirable side effects may outweigh its benefits.

When using behavior medication, it's imperative to abide by the following guidelines. Responsible use should always include:

  • Consulting a knowledgeable, experienced veterinarian.
  • Close collaboration between the prescribing veterinarian and a knowledgeable animal behavior professional, with input from those responsible for the animal's daily care.
  • A comprehensive plan, including clear, measurable treatment goals, to resolve the source(s) of distress and enhance overall quality of life.
  • Awareness and, when possible, mitigation of potential side effects
    • Further consideration is warranted when using behavior medications for animals with chronic and/or debilitating medical conditions, young animals with still-developing brains, and geriatric animals due to the lack of conclusive data about side effects and long-term benefits or detriments.
  • Effective ongoing monitoring of physical and behavioral health, including any necessary diagnostic testing.
  • A valid veterinary-client-patient relationship established as permitted by a given state’s law and in compliance with applicable federal law. [1]
    • This may include the shelter as the client and be handled through veterinarian-approved and supervised standardized written protocols as allowed by the practice act of the state in which animals are receiving care.

The ASPCA believes that when psychoactive medications are used, they should be paired with behavior modification protocols to resolve problems and affect long-term changes in behavior. However, we recognize that some animals benefit from short-term anxiety-reducing medication, along with other interventions like low-stress housing and husbandry, until behavior modification techniques can be implemented. Medication without behavior modification may also be beneficial when the goal is to reduce anxiety during stressful events, like medical exams or transport. However, we do not recommend the routine use of behavior medication for all shelter animals upon arrival or throughout their stay. Instead, we advise shelters to base decisions about the use of behavioral medication on each animal’s individual case and needs, except in situations when the use of a short-term anxiety-reducing medication would benefit an entire specific population (e.g., to ease stress during intake for an under socialized group of animals from a hoarding case). Further research is needed to better understand which medications, when, at what dose, and for what duration are most effective for both treatment and prevention.

[1] There is some variation across states as to how the veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) is defined, including how it may be established. In some instances, the relationship can be established and veterinary care provided via electronic means (i.e., telemedicine) in order to extend the bandwidth of veterinarians and improve animal welfare. In general, a valid VCPR is present when the following requirements are met. Patient records must be maintained and the veterinarian:

  1. Has assumed the responsibility for making clinical judgments regarding the health of the patient and the client [which may be an animal shelter] has agreed to follow the veterinarian’s instructions.
  2. Has sufficient knowledge of the patient to initiate at least a general or preliminary diagnosis. 
  3. Is readily available for follow-up evaluation or has arranged for emergency coverage and continued care and treatment.
  4. Provides oversight of treatment, compliance, and outcome.