One of the more common behavior problems for which I am consulted involves anxiety-related issues in dogs and cats. The problems range from simply being anxious when going to the doctor’s office or grooming shop, and thunderstorm phobias, all the way to severe separation anxiety. Behavior modification is very important in dealing with any type of anxiety and phobia (and should not be replaced by medications or supplements,) however there are situations where various natural therapies may be helpful in dealing with these issues. While conventional tranquilizers such as acepromazine can immobilize pets, these drugs do not relieve the terrible anxiety the poor pets experience. Therefore, they really should not be used as the sole therapy for anxiety disorders in dogs and cats. This article will briefly review some of the more commonly recommended supplements for dealing with anxiety in pets.
Flower essences are alcohol extracts of various plants. Flower therapy was developed by Dr. Edward Bach during the 1930’s. Dr. Bach was a conventionally trained physician who studied immunology and was involved in the development of a number of vaccines. However, he desired to find a less invasive way of treating patients that would have the same favorable results as he saw with conventional medicine.
During his studies he learned about homeopathy and was attracted to Dr. Hahnemann’s philosophy of treating the individual patient. As a result Dr. Bach began preparing homeopathic preparations of the vaccines he had created.
During this time Dr. Bach began to notice that people could be grouped based upon their emotional states. For example, he noticed that some individuals seemed lonely, some were distracted, some were fearful, and some were more outgoing. Dr. Bach further noticed that people that fell into these groupings responded best to the same type of homeopathic vaccine. By matching the homeopathic vaccine with a person’s emotional “grouping,” Dr. Bach achieved even better results in his patients.
Dr. Bach then began searching for harmless plant-derived materials for his vaccines (rather than relying on the bacterial products used at the time to prepare the vaccines.) He desired to find plants that would have a healing effect on what he thought were the negative emotions that were at the root of many diseases he saw in his patients. This would allow him not just to heal the immediate illness but also heal the root cause of the disorder. By freeing the body from its negative emotional states, the body would be free to heal itself.
The system Dr. Bach discovered during his research led to the creation of the flower essences. The flower essences (flower therapy) are extracts of flowers; each essence addresses a specific trait of mind or personality type.
These flower remedies are used to improve the attitude, personality, and mood of the patient, which Dr. Bach felt was the key to many disorders seen in his patients. According to Dr. Bach, “Health is our heritage…and is the complete and full union between the soul, mind, and body. True healing can be obtained by right replacing wrong, good replacing evil, and light replacing dark.” Dr. Bach felt that the action of the remedies was to open the patient to healing from within by replacing bad virtue (fear) with good virtue (calm.) Since mental and emotional state can determine health or disease, the flower remedies are used to achieve harmony in the patient. According to practitioners of flower essence therapy, harmonious patients are healthier as harmony precludes disease.
Rescue Remedy is the best known essence and produces a calming in many nervous pets. It is composed of the essences of 5 flowers: cherry plum, clematis, impatiens, rock rose and Star of Bethlehem.
While I prefer combination products instead of simply choosing 1 or 2 herbs for anxiety, it’s important to understand which herbs may be indicated for anxiety-related problems.
Valerian is an herb that promotes restfulness, and has not been reported to interact negatively with other medications commonly used in pets. The active ingredients in valerian bind to the same receptors in the brain as the drug diazepam.
Kava is a well known anti-anxiety herb. The active ingredients cause mild sedation, relief from anxiety, and muscle relaxation. While safe in pets, there have been a few reports of liver failure in people with preexisting severe liver disorders. In my practice, I have not seen any problems but would exercise caution in pets with liver problems.
Catnip is a well known herb used for its calming properties. In some cats, it can cause excitement (similar to a mild “high” seen in some people using illegal drugs.) However, when combined with the other herbs in this formula, its sedative and calming properties predominate.
Finally, L-tryptophan, being a precursor to serotonin, reduces aggression and anxiety.
Finally, keep in mind that your pet can pick up on your own stress level. Whenever I remove a pet from its owner during the examination, and bring it to our treatment area to perform a procedure, I notice that most pets calm down since they are not sensing the stress the owner also experiences during the visit. And don’t forget the importance of a strong immune system. Using antioxidants, feeding the pet a healthy natural diet, and reducing the amount of vaccines given, can relieve extra stress on the pet’s immune system.
Each pet is different, and there is no cookie-cutter approach that works on every case. For owners interested in avoiding conventional medications (which are usually expensive and often have the potential for undesirable side effects,) I encourage readers to consider these safe natural options before resorting to stronger conventional medications. Make sure to work with your veterinarian before using herbs, as even these natural “medicines” can have side effects in certain pets.