For most dogs, the shelter environment is incredibly stressful. It's loud and unfamiliar with incessant barking, unusual routines and the presence of strange people.
In one well-known study, researchers found that dogs normally experience extremely high levels of the stress hormone cortisol their first days spent at a shelter. The cortisol levels of newly arrived shelter dogs are typically about three times higher than those of dogs in their homes. Those levels gradually decline in most dogs.
Many shelters work hard to alleviate that stress. They play relaxing music or set up kennels like living rooms with cushy chairs and comfortable rugs to make them seem more like a home environment.
At Animal Care Centers of NYC, workers play relaxing music throughout the city's three shelters, even relying on the use of lavender diffusers, which are believed to have calming benefits for some pets, and pheromone-based diffusers for cats. They also have daily playgroups where dogs can socialize and run around for an hour so they're not in their runs all day.
But they've also started a new pilot program to help with stress: On intake, all dogs will receive two doses of an anti-anxiety medication.
"Almost all of the dogs that enter our shelter experience transitional stress," Dr. Robin Brennen, senior medical director at Animal Care Centers of NYC, said in a memo to rescue groups, according to a Facebook post. "This type of stress can challenge the dog’s immune system making them more vulnerable to disease."
The goal of the program
As soon as dogs arrive at the shelter, they will be given a dose of trazodone, a medication often prescribed for dogs that are anxious about things like veterinary visits, thunderstorms or fireworks, for example.
The belief is that it will calm shelter-induced stress and make them less afraid during key medical and personality evaluations when staff members decide if a dog can be adopted. Animals that are categorized as aggressive or fearful during these exams are at greater risk of being euthanized because they may be considered unsafe in a home.
"They have just moved from one environment, whether it’s the street or someone’s home, and entering a new one," Brennen told amNewYork. "By removing stress, we can get a sense of their true behavior."
Katy Hansen, director of marketing and communications for the shelters, tells MNN that the drug doesn't change the dog's personality; it calms their nerves.
"It’s like if you go on a plane and you’re afraid of flying you take something to take the edge off," she says. "It’s like a glass of wine when they enter the shelter. It enables the animal to be relaxed enough so their true nature comes out."
Hansen says the shelter has a 93 percent placement rate and they are working on getting that number higher.
"What we’re finding is the dogs that weren’t getting placed were fearful in the shelter and weren't getting placed because of that fear," she says.
Some people question whether medicating every new dog is a good idea. There are issues about administering medication without knowing an animal's medical history. In addition, some say the sedating effects can alter a dog's personality, which may not allow shelter workers to get an accurate evaluation.
"You need to know these things before you place them," Jo Ann Dimon of Big East Akita Rescue told amNew York. "And if a dog comes in without behavioral issues, why would you medicate them?"
But Hansen says the dose is extremely low and leaves the dog's system within five hours.
"If you have a very aggressive dog, giving him trazodone is not going to make him a love bug," she says. "If we do it for a month and we find there’s no impact, we’re going to stop doing it. Somebody’s got to try these things and right now that’s us."
Dozens of people weighed in on the shelter's Facebook page on both sides of the argument.
"Not sure how I feel about this. Some dogs probably need it but others don’t," wrote one commenter.
Said another, "I can imagine the stress any animals is under when taken away from their safe environment or even a stray, if it relieves that, I think it's a consideration."