Herbal Calming Agents

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From what I see at the pet stores there must be a alot of stressed out pooches out there.   Or maybe it’s just that the pet product industry is learning to tap into the frustrations of consumers who cannot tolerate their high energy pets.


But are these products really effective?  Are they safe?
The good news is that most of the herbal calming products found at reputable pet stores are very safe.
Most contain what herbalists like myself consider to be the old “calmative” standards—  valerian root, passion flower, skullcap, chamomile and other herbs that have been widely used in animals for many years with few, if any, adverse effects.
Likewise, some products also contain natural calming agents that are not herbs, such as  L-Tryptophan; the safe and naturally-occurring amino acid that is responsible for the post pig-out drowsiness that many of us experience after a large turkey dinner.
The question of efficacy however, is not as easy to answer.
Despite the apparent safety of most herbal calming products, questions remain as to whether many of them contain enough active ingredients to actually do the job of bringing about a more restful state.  Many contain so many “inactive” ingredients, such as grain byproducts, binders, and flavoring agents, that the active (and usually more expensive) herbal components of the product are only minutely present.  In a way this is good— calmative herbs are much weaker in effect than conventional sedative drugs.  Therefore are generally much safer and forgiving to the uninformed user.  In fact, in my experiences as a consultant to over 400 veterinarians over the past fifteen years, I have yet to see any serious adverse effects from the use of valerian, skullcap, passion flower, oat flower, or  Kava kava in dogs or cats.
None of this is to say that herbal calming formulas are ineffective.  To the contrary, even some of the most dilute formulas can be quite effective at taking the edge off exciting events.   Fact is, some dogs respond quite well to very small doses of calmative herbs.  This is why I usually reach for Rescue Remedy; a Bach flower essence formula, before resorting to anything else.
For those who are not familiar with Rescue Remedy, it is what open-minded holistic types call an “energetic medicine.”  Flower essences possess only tiny, almost undetectable traces of the plant flower residues they represent.   Even I cannot fully explain how or why they work.  But I don’t care— seeing is believing, and the stuff is extremely safe. There is absolutely no possibility of harm in trying Rescue Remedy in your first attempt to calm down Fido.  A small bottle goes everywhere with me, and is used liberally in my dogs (and even myself) whenever needed. When Rescue Remedy doesn’t work (about 50% of the time), I will opt for a stronger and more reliable calmative herbal remedy.

There are literally hundreds of studies documenting the gentle sedative activities of dozens of calmative herbs.  Most of these activities are attributed to plant chemistries that interact with the body to mildly alter various nervous system functions.
However, the efficacy of an herbal calming formula is influenced by several other factors as well.  While quality, composition, and concentration of active ingredients all factor into the equation, we also must consider the physical and behavioral nature of the recipient dog, the causes of his anxiety, and the context in which a product is used as important aspects of how an herbal calming formula will act within the body.
To explain in more detail…

So, you are probably wondering:  Which herb works best?  What form of product is best?  How much should I give?
While each is a valid question, the question of “which product is most appropriate for my individual” stands as most important. And in finding an answer that works for you and your dog, you should think along four lines:

1) Each and every herb has its own range of special attributes and medicinal properties that makes it unique among all others.
Not all calmative herbs are alike.  Some, such as chamomile, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and valerian are especially well suited to calming a nervous stomach. While skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia), an herb that many of my veterinarian friends of mine are using for treatment of canine epilepsy is better suited to cases of nervous jitteriness, muscle twitching, or hypersensitivity to touch.
Passionflower can be used in a manner similar to that of skullcap, but it stands above skullcap when the situation calls for a remedy against emotional upset— like separation anxiety or fear aggression that is associated with jealousy of another animal.

2) No single herb will work effectively in each and every animal.  Why?  Because no two dogs are alike.
Where one herb will work well for calming dog “A”, the same herb may actually aggravate the emotional condition of dog “B”.  Both Eastern and Western herbalists for example, regard Valerian as a somewhat “hot” herb that is known to warm the body and “heat the constitution” of the animal.  If applied to a dog with a hot temperament— or one that is chronically hot, itching for no apparent reason, or displaying a bright fire-red tongue— valerian root may actually make the pup even more hot and irritable.  You should consider this before purchasing a product like Veterinarian’s Best Travel Calm Formula, which contains two “hot” herbs: valerian root and ginger.  Both of these are great herbs for alleviating travel-induced anxiety and nausea, but they may not be the best choices for hot-natured dogs.
Some formulas however, balance out the heating effects of valerian or other warming herbs by combining them with an assortment of other “cooler” calmatives such as passion flower, oat flower and skullcap.

3) In weighing the choices of which form of product (i.e., tablet, liquid, powder, etc.) to buy, your primary considerations will be two fold.  Ease-of-administration, followed closely by optimum availability of active components.
Obviously, if you must chase your dog down and force-feed a vile-tasting product into him, you will be working against the goal of calming him.  On the other hand, if you are feeding a product that he relishes because of all of the dried meats, grains, and flavoring agents it contains, you might have to feed large amounts to find effect.
My preference, of course, is biased by the fact that I own a company that produces a sweet-tasting; alcohol free tincture blend that I feel offers optimum potency and acceptable palatability in most dogs.  But regardless of which type of product you prefer, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for how much to feed.

4) Buyer beware.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Even a dyed-in-the-wool believer of herbal medicine like myself is wise be a little bit skeptical.  Beware of product manufacturers that make extraordinary claims. And if a calming formula contains an ingredient you do not recognize, don’t buy it— at least not until you do some research into exactly what the stuff is.
The sad truth is that clever marketing has made certain herbs bigger than life.
Despite the potential values of many of those “super trendy super herbs” out there, consumers must remain aware that market performance and popularity does not always equate to sound medicine.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.) is one example.  Ever since this wonderful plant gained worldwide recognition as a potential alternative to antidepressant drugs such as Prozac?, it has been pushed as a panacea against anything that vaguely resembles chronic depression.  It has even been touted as a “mood elevator” by large pharmaceutical companies who add it who add it in scant doses to their daily vitamin product (just how the FDA lets them get away with that is beyond me!)
The truth about St. John’s wort is that it might work in certain individuals (human or animal) that suffer from depression that may be attributable to serotonin-related or other brain chemistry imbalances.  To say that it will work against the emotional or behavioral imbalances in a broad audience of dogs is bit of a stretch— at least in my mind.
In my opinion St. John’s wort is better suited to relieving nerve pain. I do not consider it effective for cases of acute (sudden-onset) anxiety— such as that caused by fireworks, a trip to the veterinarian, or a stay at the kennel. It simply does not act that way.
Kava kava (Piper methysticum) on the other hand, is an example of how human misuse can get a great herbal ally in big trouble and ruin things for everybody.
Despite thousands of years of safe, daily use in people and animals, kava has become the casualty of irresponsible use and bad press.
Because of its abuse among “designer druggies” and alcohol recreationists who recognized its warm, relaxing effects as something that is just too much fun, Kava is in the process of being banned by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in many states. This very unfortunate.  When used prudently kava is a safe and wonderful remedy for acute muscle tension and pain.  Provided there are no preexisting liver problems or potentially hepatotoxic drugs (such as Rymadil?) in concurrent use, Kava can be safely administered by veterinarians for short term treatment of post-operative pain; after the effects of anesthetics have subsided. However, regardless of its safety when used properly, I will not use it on a daily basis in dogs.  Why?  Because when used long term, kava can place stress upon the liver.
We can only speculate what kind of daily assault
our dogs’ livers are under.   Sadly, thanks to us humans, the modern world is chock full of pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful chemicals that our dogs must survive with their faces and paws in everyday.  Then there are the drugs, chemical flea interventions, dips, vaccines, and wormers that add to the hepatotoxic soup.
But that I guess, is another story.

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