“Pets on Prozac…the h
Sisters and cat owners Emily and Jessica Lockhart of Toronto are very close and enjoy living together, but their cats don’t get along. Priscilla, an eight year old tabby Emily adopted from an animal shelter, developed a compulsive licking disorder, aggravated by attacks from Jessica’s two tomcats. Despite being given anti-anxiety medication, Priscilla’s condition hasn’t really improved, and as a result the sisters are considering moving apart to separate the animals from each other.
Toronto dog owner Jen Hart’s hound Zeke is friendly towards everyone except her long-term boyfriend Greg, who was bitten by Zeke three weeks after they began dating. Zeke must now be muzzled when in the same room as Greg. Half a dozen trainers later, with limited success, Jen doesn’t want to have to choose between the man she loves and Zeke, who is an essential part of her life. After much struggle and resistance to the idea, Jen decides to try a Prozac regime for Zeke.
In Oakville, Ontario, Claire Labelle’s Timi has a lot of aggression for a tiny teacup poodle, barking incessantly and not hesitating to attack strangers as well as Claire and her sister Claudette. For Claire, medication to “take the edge off” is a necessity while she strives to bring him under control with training tips from her veterinarian.
After seeing this film, I had mixed feelings about the whole issue. The amount of information presented in this film is vast and leaves you thinking about it and asking questions for some time after. I had the chance to ask director Patrick Reed a few of my questions and chat a bit more about the film. Here is what transpired.
HM: First of all, how did the idea for the project come about? Was it yours, was it pitched?
Patrick Reed: I saw an odd headline about pets on Prozac a few years ago. It turned out to be a provocative subject matter with interesting characters dealing with human dilemmas. Since I had done some freelance work for White Pine Pictures, I have a good relationship with them. So, we pitched the idea to CBC docs and they got involved from the beginning.
HM: The characters in the film are so open with you and the crew. How did you find them and involved in the film? And how long did the whole project take to complete?
PR: Actually, I worked with a young researcher, Jessie R. in finding the characters for the film. We met with potential participants to get to know them and figure out who would be involved. The project overall took about a year from the beginning to end. Filming took about three months. We used one camera and sound person while one of use was interviewing the families. Sometimes, we’d have to wait to wait about three or four times of filming to see if any changes happened with their pets. The families themselves actually believe the struggle they’re going through affects other people. Jen and Greg, for example, their dog is so aggressive that we appreciated their level of comfort while we filmed, since Zeke would act up against Greg.
HM: Given that antidepressants and anxiolytics can cause side effects on humans, how are the effects of these drugs being monitored in pets… Do vets conduct clinical trials, follow-ups and so on?
PR: Well, this is an interesting question. Dr. Dodman, for example, has his heart in the right place. He deals with very extreme cases. (HM: “I’m in conflict with him.”) Dr. Dodman says that brain chemistry is not a behavioural issue. When we were filming in his clinic in the US, he would prescribe various antidepressants. But he would tell his clients to buy the generic brand; he wasn’t pushing Eli Lily nor any other “label.” What is interesting is that Big Pharma makes money marketing these drugs not necessarily to extreme cases but to any pet. It’s preying on people’s good intentions for their pets. This is and should be a concern.
Dr. Dunbar and others say that extreme cases may be due to the environment; or maybe people need to get another pet, take them out on more walks or it may be a training issue. It is hard to discern. In Japan, there is a huge potential to market pet pharmaceuticals. There, it’s the opposite of the West; pet owners see their pets as surrogate children. But pet owners themselves are not necessarily susceptible to use medications themselves. This is a marketing challenge for Big Pharma.
HM: Given that you have done many films that relate to the human condition, what does this say about us as a society?
PR: Well, we cannot control behaviour with medications… we don’t want that. We have to look at who is offers a solution and see their interest in this solution. In all honesty, people’s intentions are good. And we have to realize that in extreme cases, if they do not get medication, they will be put in a shelter or be put down. Pets are part of our families and for many, they can replace a child. Thus, we have do realize that most people want the best for those they care about, including their pets. That is part of the human condition. We do have to remember, however, that dogs used to be “working dogs,” as Dr. Dunbar says. We have to give them an outlet and a role in the family. They are not necessarily children; they are not extensions of ourselves and we need to keep this in mind.
HM: Can you give us an update on how the families in the film are doing since you stopped filming?
PR: Well, I can start by saying that that Zeke has seen some improvement. Jen & Greg have put him on & off the medication for a few months now. He has gone for a number of weeks without a muzzle but when he is off the medication, his aggressive behaviour returns. This is a quality of life issue and they are still trying to balancing things out. As for Jessica, Emily and their cat Priscilla, they are still living together. Priscilla went off the medication and is back to her compulsive behaviour. For the Taillefer family, Jake and every one else is doing fine. He is not on any medications. The owners are very vigilant around him and they’re making things work… This is so much work given that they have children. Finally, Claire and Claudette are still dealing with Timi’s outbursts. His last medication was not very good. He is on antidepressants again. He is not going for walks outside the home but does exercise around the house. Basically, everyone is trying to make it work for themselves.
HM: Lastly what other projects are you working on?
PR: I just finished a film about a soap-opera produced in Kenya. It is called The Team. We have submitted it to the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam this month.
This is not only an informative documentary whether you own a pet or not. It is also a look at a topic that is often controversial with humans and that is now affecting our pets. I hope you find is as interesting as I did and that you engage in your conversations on the subject.
Again, the film airs Thursday on CBC-TV at 9PM and Friday at 10PM on CBC News Network. For more information on the film and Peter Reed’s other projects go here.
*Info and photos provided by VKPR.