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DOPED UP DOGS: A VETERINARY REALITY
by Stella Starr, Pet Perspectives Research
Drug use has become an American obsession but dogs hooked on tranquilizers is a national disgrace to pet owners and the veterinary profession.
Tranquilizer addiction has become a feline and canine health problem that worries conscientious owners and veterinarians. Human drugs traditionally make their way to the consumer through animal testing. We accept that a rat is a rat is a detestable pest but there’s something to be learned from drug studies using rats – and it applies to our doped up pets and more so, to our children.
First a little background on behavior modification and addictive drug testing. As a grandmother first (cat fancier second) I was taken aback when I heard about the “Rat Park” test conducted in the 1970s by a psychologist-professor in British Columbia. Concerned parents and diligent drug addiction researchers (like me this week) searching for help on illegal drug use or addictive prescriptions are likely to stumble across the "Rat Park" example. If you do, don’t click out… there is an unintentional but strong societal message there. I knew about recreational drug use (who doesn’t!) but this was as we used to say “far out.”
In a nutshell, Dr. Bruce Alexander “suspected that the preference of rats to morphine over water in previous experiments might be affected by their housing conditions.” Picture this: a lab rat lives alone in a tiny cage. Rats, like dogs, are social critters (that “multiply like rats”) and in their natural environment, they would have an acre or more to explore. Exactly like your dog, rats are driven to sniff this, taste that, dig and mark territory, seek a mate, and reproduce the species…
Hold that thought. You are about to get a big dose of perspective on dog ownership.
Back to the scientist. Testing drug addition, he decided that living in a tiny cage with no social interaction robbed the rat of sensory input. He concluded that his drug addiction tests were flawed by typical lab environment (think living room window for your cat or fenced yard as regards your dog) and so he built a bigger enclosure. Still thinking? Okay, let’s go on.
Dr. Alexander built a big cage called “Rat Park” and it was 200 times bigger than the solitary confinement laboratory cages. But he was a kindly guy so he put exercise wheels in the cage. (picture your dog’s immediate ancestor running for miles across the tundra.) He gave them more food and best of all, he put the lab rats all together. Here’s where the experiment made history. Remember, he was testing drug addiction effects by a free-choice method, putting morphine in the water…
To his amazement (and great professional renown), the Rat Park rats virtually cured their drug addiction. The article said “rats reared in cages drank as much as 20 times more morphine than those brought up in Rat Park.” The rats that suddenly had all that freedom messed up the study! So he tried putting sugar in the water along with the morphine, thinking that would kill the bitter taste, the rats would follow protocol and he could go on with the drug study. There’s a lot more to the "Rat Park" findings but here is why you are reading this - “When Alexander's rats were given something better to do than sit in a bare cage they turned their noses up at morphine because they preferred playing with their friends and exploring their surroundings to getting high.”
f course I called my daughter and we had a talk about her spoiled teenagers. Then I thought about the average house pet including cats. Okay, they are stalkers not chasers like wild dogs, but even so, it is the concentration and mental activity I’m talking about.
What does your dog do while you’re at work or tending to household duties. He sleeps. If he has access to a yard he can listen to birds chirp and insets scuttle through the grass. He can dig a hole to see what’s there. He can bark at passersby and best of all, he can bark a challenge to the stray dog and mark his territory perimeter for good measure…
Now what about a house dog. He can scratch. Chew his feet. Check his built-in watch. Think about supper. Scratch some more. If he’s outside, he can dig a hole. Dogs don’t project into the future, he doesn’t “know” that will make you mad. He just does it.
If he’s an unnaturally confined “inside dog” he is comparable to the caged rat. No wonder he goes nuts when you get home! He’s been unbearably stressed all day! His genes and physicality were designed to run for miles (or at least a city block) chasing prey. His incredible brain was developed to solve problems and with the help of his nose and mouth, find where he buried his bone, seek a mate, and mark his territory (God forbid it’s your golf bag or new skis you left leaning against the wall).
When you come home, if he isn’t totally brain dead and hasn’t chewed something, of course he’s thrilled to see you. He might even jump on you, run circles around you… bark and slobber in excitement. Do you scold him? Or do you take him out to the Rat Park?
Nothing more to be said on behalf of the once-wild dog. Well, except please remember Rat Park when the vet suggests a tranquilizer or something to “stop the chewing” or “barking all day” or “spinning in circles” or “wanting so much attention.” My Persians once pulled their show coat out! A bit more subtle but attention-getting… I looked up tranquilizers. Acepromazine, phenothiazine tranquilizer, diphenhydramine (trade name Benadryl) are common canine tranquilizers but because they are in “common” use does not mean they are safe and certainly not as a substitute for adequate mental and physical exercise!
If you can’t give your pet the time, the mental stimulation and exercise nature intended, be kind to your dog or coat - find him another home. Please do so before you dope him up or dumb him down with tranquilizers, sedation, and anxiety medication to stop expression of normal anxiety. That does not cure the boredom and lack of exercise problem. Cats are not as badly affected but don’t they love a session with the Kitty Tease or some other toy? To them it is like chasing a ball is to your dog. Be kind to your pet. I hope this helps.
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