These days, when she's home alone, Kita calmly observes from the window and listens to smooth jazz — quite a change from a few years ago, when the now-14-year-old, 50-pound husky would anxiously pace, bite through electric cords, rip holes into the carpet, and scratch at the door.
Diagnosed with severe separation anxiety, Kita and her owners, Michele and Carl Piazza, sought help from a veterinary behaviorist.
Carlo Siracusa — "a pet psychiatrist, in medical-specialist pet speak," he explained — prescribed the antidepressant Clomipramine and found calming solutions for Kita. Now, when the Piazzas are gone, the dog has the full run of their Montgomeryville house. With the wooden door wide open, she can look out through the storm door and windows. And she's given frozen, extra-large KONG toys filled with peanut butter and other treats. After $300 for the initial consultation with Siracusa (costs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine have since gone up to be an average of $400 for the initial consult) and about $240 per month on medications not covered by pet insurance, Kita is doing well, say the Piazzas.
With more than 100 million American households owning dogs or cats, pets have been elevated to equal members of the family. And with that status comes the perks of humanhood: healthy food, stylish grooming, tip-top mental health. If Mom or Dad is in therapy, why not puppy?
"Now it's OK to say, 'These are my children,' and that opens up the door for any level of spending and wanting to do anything you can, particularly if it's pet health-related," said David Lummis, pet market analyst for market researcher Packaged Facts, based in Rockville, Md.
When the Piazzas adopted Kita as a 5-year-old rescue in 2009, they fell in love with her sweet, pleasant temperament. But after first crating her while they were out, "we came back and it was a mess," recalled Carl, 59. "She destroyed the crate trying to get out." They began leaving her in a closed room to give her more space, which worked for many years. But as she got older, she became more anxious, trying desperately to get out of the room.
They tried several medications in hope of calming her down. But even when sedated, the Piazza's webcam showed that "as soon as we closed the door, she would pace and start to destroy," said Michele, 57.
Eventually, the couple stopped going on vacations, and if they were out of the house for six hours or more, they hired a neighbor to sit with Kita.
Although pet therapy might conjure up dog whisperers, the practice might be better described as trying to understand a pet's perspective as a way of helping the owners, as owners' happiness, after all, equals household happiness. (Case in point: Behavior is the No. 1 cause of people electing euthanasia in dogs – more than physical disease, said Ilana Reisner, a veterinary behaviorist based in Wallingford, who makes house calls.)
As the work of more behavioralists becomes increasingly visible on social media or on reality TV (My Cat From Hell, Cesar 911, Lucky Dog), pet owners are becoming more comfortable embracing the process.
What brings them to finally ask for help ranges from aggressive behavior (that's 90 percent of cases at Penn Vet) to fear of noise, like fireworks and thunderstorms. When it comes to cats, they tend to have problems with elimination outside the litter box, Siracusa said.
Often, a pet's aggressiveness stems from a physical problem, so the first step is a thorough physical examination. "Many dogs behave aggressively because they are in pain," said Siracusa.
Instead of simulating a situation to see how a dog responds, owners are asked to bring videos showing what happens. And yelling at your pet will only make things worse, insisted Siracusa.
Can you teach a pet to not do a certain thing?. "It's more a question of learning what the triggers are," Reisner said, "learning to read the dog's body language and avoiding the triggers in some way."
About six months after Allison Schwartz adopted Frankie, her playful 2-year-old black shorthair cat, she said he started "going berserk" overnight. "In the middle of the night, he was knocking everything over and chewing things up," said Schwartz, 32, of Rittenhouse Square. "Needless to say, I wanted to be able to sleep at night."
His diagnosis: abandonment issues and jealousy of Schwartz's boyfriend. "He wanted attention," she said after seeing Siracusa. "He totally got psychoanalyzed."
Because so many problems are rooted in anxiety – fearfulness, phobia, separation anxiety and aggression – medication can be a helpful tool, said Reisner.
"Behavior modification can only go so far. Rather than changing the pet's personality, the point of the medication is to help the dog be less worried, so he's more able to respond to what the owner is trying to do."
Lummis estimates that 2 percent to 3 percent of the $8.6 billion annual pet medication market is spent on anti-anxiety drugs – a 10 percent increase over last year. Non-medicated calming products are also popular, like supplements, and calming apparel, sprays and collars. "I would guesstimate that's about a hundred-million-dollar category, outside of pharmaceuticals," said Lummis.
Medications do come with risks, so benefits must be weighed against the costs, said Reisner. "Just like our bodies, the animal's body has to work to metabolize and ultimately get rid of the waste products of the drugs, and sometimes drugs have side effects."
Not all behaviors can be fixed, though, Siracusa said.
"The job of an animal behaviorist is to understand the animal point of view – why the animal is behaving that way," he said. "That's not justifying the behavior. If we understand, we can take actions that are appropriate which would be safe for people, but at the same time respectful for the animal."
Frankie gets the natural supplement zylkene each morning, and Schwartz makes sure she plays with him as she gets dressed for her day. She also sets up brain stimulation games to keep him occupied during her 11-hour workday.
"I have little bowls around the house where I put treats and food, and he goes hunting during the day to keep his mind occupied," she said.