Reviewed by Paula Simons, DVM
August 1, 2022
As a former veterinary technician, I get asked a lot of questions when I’m chatting with other dog owners. One topic that frequently comes up are questions about dog tranquilizers.
Tranquilizer pills are given to dogs to reduce anxiety or tension and are designed for short-term use.
Dog Tranquilizers vs Sedatives
Often the words “tranquilizer” and “sedative” are used the same way, even though they have different meanings.
A sedative is used specifically to make an animal sleepy. Many sedatives also work as tranquilizers (it’s hard to be tense when you are sleepy), but not all tranquilizers will have this effect.
It is important that you explain what kind of effect you are looking for when talking to your vet about tranquilizers. Are you looking to reduce anxiety, or do you want a sleepy puppy?
Once your vet understands why you want a tranquilizer, they can point you to an over the counter or prescription product that fits your needs.
Types of Dog Tranquilizer Pills
Most dog tranquilizers are prescription products. While over the counter (OTC) medications often work as sedatives, they don’t tend to be much help in reducing general anxiety or with behavior problems.
Depending on your needs, you may be able to get by with an OTC at times. But if you have a bigger issue, like a dog recovering from surgery, or one with separation anxiety, you will definitely want to go with a prescription product.
Benadryl for Dogs
There are no over-the-counter medications specifically marketed as dog tranquilizers. However, many folks take advantage of the sedative effect of antihistamines like Benadryl.
Pros of Giving Benadryl to a Dog
When used properly and safely, Benadryl is sometimes useful in calming a dog with unavoidable fears. This is best given a half-hour to one hour before the event.
Naturally, it’s best to keep your dog away from known sources of anxiety, but sometimes that’s just not possible.
Benadryl could be considered an inexpensive, easily accessible OTC to help with your dog’s fears and phobias.
Cons of Benadryl for Dogs
For a dog with a mild fear of fireworks, Benadryl may be enough to keep them calm. But for an animal who is truly terrified of fireworks, it doesn’t take much to get them excited and override the sedative effects of the Benadryl. They can power through the drug in seconds.
That is the big downside to using an OTC product for a tranquilizer- a bit of adrenaline in your dog’s system will quickly make the medication useless. Once a dog is excited, no tranquilizer or sedative will work until they have calmed down.
OTC products are best used for short term, temporary situations lasting no more than a few hours.
Acepromazine for Dogs
Acepromazine is one of the most common tranquilizers prescribed to dogs. It’s not, however, ideal for noise phobias. Some dogs actually get very reactive to noises while on Acepromazine. But for sedation and mild anxiety, acepromazine can work very well.
Gabapentin for Dog’s Anxiety
Gabapentin and trazodone are used as sedatives for dogs and are designed for short-term use. A veterinarian may suggest Gabapentin to diminish noise anxiety.
Read more about Gabapentin for Dogs here.
Alprazolam for Dog Anxiety
Dog tranquillizer pills like Alprazolam (Xanax) work well as do antidepressants and anti anxiety medications.
Alprazolam is used in cats and dogs to treat anxiety or phobias and is ‘off label’ or ‘extra label’. Although formulated for people, this drug has been used to treat pets.
Why Use Dog Tranquilizers?
There are many reasons why someone would want to use a dog tranquilizer. In most of these cases, a prescription product is a better choice than trying an OTC.
It is very common to use tranquilizers after your dog has surgery, to keep them quiet and calm as they recover.
This is especially important for major surgeries, like TPLO’s, where a dog has weeks of minimal activity on the horizon. But even for a spay or neuter, a dog who is too active afterwards can cause complications. Sometimes expensive complications.
If your dog is a bouncy, energetic one, then definitely request a sedative to go home with you after surgery!
Most of the time, behavior problems are best treated by a combination of prescription tranquilizers and training. Anxiety in dogs can be expressed in many different ways, from destructive chewing to escape attempts.
Often, these behaviors are also potentially dangerous to the dog (and owners). If you dog has severe anxiety, then medications may well be the difference between life and death.
OTC drugs may work for mild anxiety at times, but they wear off quickly and don’t work at all for dogs with bigger problems.
This is probably the most common reason for an owner to request a sedative. Whether your dog hates nail trims or the groomer, or gets scared in the car, there are just times you need them to be calm.
Both OTC and prescription drugs can work for these situations. Whether one is a better choice than the other will really depend on your dog. I can get by using Benadryl for the 4th of July holiday, because none of my dogs have a strong reaction to fireworks. But if I had a dog who was really scared of them, I would use a prescription product in a heartbeat.
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The key to using a tranquilizer for situational anxiety is to get the medication on board about an hour BEFORE the stressful event starts. Once your dog is worked up, oral tranquilizers simply won’t work. You have to dose your dog before they start getting anxious, and re-dose them as needed to keep them calm.
Alternatives to Dog Tranquilizers
There are alternatives to using drugs for anxiety, and it is usually a good idea to try these before you move on to using medications!
You can find a lot of calming supplements for dogs online, and I have used many of them successfully.
These supplements are usually given mixed with food, or as a treat. Often featuring the word “calm” in the label, you can find all kinds of options out there. You will have to play around and find what works for your dog.
I particularly like a product called Zylkene, which is made from milk proteins. It has a natural, mild calming effect. It can be given daily or just when you need your dog to relax. It can also be used with other OTC and prescription products.
CBD-based products are also becoming more common. I haven’t tried them for anxiety in my dogs, but I have had several clients who use them and loved the effect.
Most of these products will help calm your dog, but their effect is limited. I like to say they work by bringing your dog down a notch on the anxiety scale. If your dog is really anxious, these kinds of supplements alone might not be enough.
These products mimic the pheromones produced by mothers while nursing their young. They come as sprays, diffusers and even as collars your dog can wear. All your dog has to do is be around the product (you can’t smell it) and the pheromones will reduce their anxiety.
The diffusers and collars can work for a full month at a time. They are great for events like moving, holidays and even vet visits. Many veterinary clinics use pheromone products in house, and sell them as well. You can easily find them online too.
The great thing about pheromone based products is that they can be used alone or in combination with other supplements and medications. They are safe to use in puppies and in older dogs too.
Thunder shirts are specially designed clothing that a dog wears when exposed to a stressful situation.
The shirts work by putting gentle, constant pressure on your dog’s body. Like being wrapped in a blanket, this sensation often causes a dog to relax. I have seen several dogs who were terrified by thunder get through storms calmly wearing a thunder shirt.
There are a lot of options when it comes to dog tranquilizers. You can go for an OTC, a prescription medication, or try one of the alternatives. It takes some trial and error to find the best solution for each individual dog, so don’t feel down if your first choice doesn’t work.
Sometimes the best option is a combination of products. I often use calming supplements along with OTC medications and pheromone products in my dogs. Mix and match and see what works best for your dog!