Gone are the days of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, when dog catchers rounded up nameless nuisance strays and took them to dog pounds to sit in cages. Animal shelters are modernizing and advancing. They are staffed by gentle, caring and committed animal lovers. They have welfare conferences, they have veterinary shelter medicine specializations, they have enrichment programs—and they are using science to make educated decisions.
Yet, animal shelters are inherently stressful places, where even well-adjusted pets can shut down physically and behaviorally. Environmental stress is often at the root of the many challenges pets face in shelters, particularly in large, open-admission, municipal shelters. In turn, 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.
To begin to combat this, shelters must meet basic veterinary and behavioral care needs, and must put enrichment policies into place to minimize stress. But once that’s been done, what else could further reduce rates of contagious illness that may be linked to immunosuppression?
To evaluate this question, we worked with Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC), New York City’s only open-admission animal shelter system. ACC has full veterinary and behavior teams in each shelter to provide for the 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.
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In spite of these measures, rates of contagious respiratory illness remain high at ACC, particularly canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CIRDC), or kennel cough. This appears to be due, at least in part, to a depressed immune system caused by high levels of stress.
In a study reported on in the December 1, 2016, issue of JAVMA, “Effects of trazodone on behavioral signs of stress in hospitalized dogs,” pharmacologic intervention is a potential next step for improving kenneled dogs’ quality of life. While additional research is needed to determine the efficacy and practicality of such interventions, one promising medication has been proposed: trazodone hydrochloride (trazodone).
Trazodone, an atypical antidepressant classified as a serotonin receptor antagonist and reuptake inhibitor, is 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.
Therefore, in 2018, ACC began to use low-dose trazodone on a trial basis to ease the transition period into the shelter environment. All dogs were given one to two doses of trazodone (5 mg/kg) within 48 hours of intake.
How did we test the theory?
To evaluate whether trazodone may be helpful in reducing the number of cases of CIRDC, we compared two time periods: the population that received the drug, and a historical control that didn’t. In November and December 2018, all dogs received an appropriate dose of trazodone upon entering the shelter. In the control group—dogs entering the shelter in November and December 2016 and 2017—no dogs received trazodone. We identified 1,766 records for use and inclusion in the analysis.
What did we find?
Statistical tests comparing the number of sick dogs in the No Trazodone and Trazodone groups identified a significant change in illness rates. Fewer dogs in the Trazodone group (29.1%) were sick compared to the No Trazodone group (41.2%). Moreover, 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). Finally, dogs in the Trazodone group had a higher rate of adoption (42.1%) compared to the No Trazodone group (30.4%).
What do these correlational findings mean?
They suggest that there may be a new practical use for trazodone. It seems that receiving a low dose of this drug upon transition to the shelter may mitigate a dog’s stress, indirectly affect immune suppression and possibly improve resistance to highly contagious illnesses like CIRDC. As early intervention in a shelter is critical for a pet’s success, trazodone may be a useful option (one of many!) available for reducing stress in the shelter and improving quality of life.
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 is 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, administration of trazodone should be used in tandem with other non-pharmacological protocols. It is of the utmost importance 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 tumultuous environment.