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Old May 24th, 2003, 10:50 PM
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PETS: It's a dog's life when you're on Prozac, but there is hope

PETS: It's a dog's life when you're on Prozac, but there is hope

AS the modern world becomes more stressful, demanding and fraught, it's no wonder more people are turning to counselling and therapy to cope. But could we be passing on our stress and tension to our pets? Deputy News Editor Catherine Harker finds out why pet owners are turning to Prozac and animal psychologists to help maintain a happy home.

WHEN Jane Shepperson's dog Gem started snapping and growling, the problem got so bad she was ready to do anything to solve it.

But even she was bemused when her vet suggested putting the Jack Russell on Prozac.

"I nearly fell off the chair laughing," she said. "It cost me a fortune, but it calmed her down."

Thanks to the anti-depressant, sessions with a pet psychologist and plenty of TLC, Gem is now a reformed character.

Although Gem's daily dose of Prozac is by no means a normal pet prescription, it highlights the lengths modern dog owners will go to to help their increasingly stressed-out pooches.

Gem, now seven-years-old, joined the Shepperson household as a puppy, but Jane soon realised she was not like her previous pets.

"Her main problems started when she was two years old," Jane said. "She started getting aggressive with us.

"For no apparent reason she would growl and snap, but we thought it was something she would grow out of.

"It got to the stage where we didn't like to take her anywhere, we thought she might be aggressive to other dogs and other people."

Jane, who lives in Whittlesey, put up with Gem's behaviour for years until finally she could take no more and went to visit her vet

She said: "I was at my wits end. I went to talk to my vet about it and I expected him to say we would have to put her to sleep. I was so upset."

But rather than give Gem a death sentence, the vet called in dog psychologist, Marion Radford, and prescribed a course of anti-depressants.

Jane said: "Gem was diagnosed her as being nervous aggressive if she was human we would have sent her to a psychologist and told her to lay down the the couch to tell him her troubles.

"Marion has taught us all sorts of things like not transferring our fear on to Gem, don't treat aggression with aggression, just back off and don't make eye contact.

"She has taught us to help Gem and she is always at the end of the phone, I've rung her up a few times in tears."

Thanks to 125-worth of Prozac, Marion's patience and one-to-one sessions, Gem now attends weekly classes to help socialise her with other dogs.

Jane said: "For the first six week we sat away from the other dogs and watched. Gem was under the chair and if anyone came too close she would growl. Now we take part.

"She can still be unpredictable, but we know the signs. She's a loving little dog, but just on her own terms.

Gem's tale is one Marion's favourite success stories. Marion, together with her 16-year-old daughter Bethan run Radford Pet Care and Animal Education Centre. The pair have been called to help countless dogs, cats, horses and even parrots with behavioural problems.

The pair, who are often referred by vets to work with pets, "tune-in" to the animal's way of thinking and try to discover what is at the root of the problem.

Marion (50), from Pondersbridge, near Peterborough, said: "Both Bethan and I have inherited my father's instinct. It's not something you can learn you either have it or you don't.

"It's like a sixth sense. You look at a dog and see things through their eyes. The severe cases such as Gem's are few and far between. Thankfully, putting the dog on Prozac doesn't happen too often.

"Gem is 200 per cent better than she was."

Marion believes the growing number of pet problems are largely due to changes in society such as more people working, families choosing the wrong type of pet and even diet, with more additives and colourings being put into food.

Marion, who shares her home with "too many dogs", rabbits, a gecko and even a houseduck, said: "Years ago, when I was a child, people didn't seem to have problems with dogs. I think now owners are under so much pressure it gets passed on to the animal.

"When we get stressed we bite our fingernails, smoke and drink coffee, whereas a dog might bark or scratch things."

"Most problems are with young dogs, they aren't aware of our social culture they don't know it's unacceptable to wee on the floor."

The growing number of pets which are dumped is also increasing the workload of animal workers such as Marion.

"Sadly, we live in a chuck away society," she said. "Dogs which have gone into a rescue home often have no stability, they might have separation and anxiety issues, and even when they get into a new home they are scared."

As dogs are pack animals, Marion gives advice to families on the right way to handle and treat their pet and also dispenses tips on training and techniques to clear up problems such as barking or chewing.

During a 25 one-to-one session with the animal and owners, Marion and Beth will draw up a tailor-made plan.

Very often the answers are simple ones, such as leaving plenty of toys for a bored dog,

She encouraged the owners of one dog which was scared of noise to make a tape of the scary sounds and play it at a low level throughout the day.

She said: "We try to get owners to see the world through their dog's eyes. It can be really rewarding, like with Gem, when you see the change that's happening."

Gem's grateful owner added: "Marion has helped make a real difference I suppose along with the vet she saved Gem's life."
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