10/17/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE PATIENT WAS A BICHON frise—obviously deeply troubled. Driven by canine demons that can only be guessed at, the bichon, Snowy by name, had taken to chewing her tail. So thorough was the self-mutilation that one veterinarian recommended amputation. But Dr. Steven Melman, called in for a second opinion, wanted to try something else, something that he hoped would make Snowy chill out. It worked, and Melman was eventually able to report in DVM, a veterinarian's magazine, "I saved my patient's tail." His treatment: Prozac.
Yes, just six years after the drug was introduced as a frequently effective treatment for human depression, Melman, 47, who practices in Palm Springs, Calif., and Potomac, Md., is leading the charge to make it an option for dogs whose emotional lives have gone to the dogs. Not that he's in favor of prescribing it just for any golden retriever with the blues. "I'll try everything else first, even try to talk them out of it," he says. "But when everything else fails, Prozac can help."
Melman believes the drug, which he tested for more than five years on about 100 dogs after learning about its effects on dogs in a National Institute of Mental Health study, is especially good for obsessive-compulsive dog disorders—such as acral lick dermatitis, a skin condition caused by obsessive paw and flank licking. He also thinks it can help dogs whose allergies have driven them to scratching.
Just as controversy surrounds the use of Prozac by humans, so too are there dissenters from Melman's crusade. Dr. Robert Schick, of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, is one of the skeptics. "It's not the end to all problems," he says. "As soon as a dog is taken off the medication, the problem comes back."
Dog owner Beverly Betteridge of Rockland, Md., though, is definitely pro-Prozac. Tank, her 9-year-old golden retriever, suffered from compulsive-licking disorder, caused by a host of allergies. After trying a number of therapies, Betteridge went to Melman, who prescribed Prozac. "There was some improvement immediately," she says. "Now, he's a very happy dog. And it makes me feel better too."