Herbs for the Anxious Dog or Cat

by Greg Tilford

WHAT MAKES HERBAL CALMING FORMULAS EFFECTIVE?

Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia)

The efficacy of an herbal calming formula is influenced by several other factors— 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…

PICKING THE RIGHT PRODUCT FOR THE JOB

So, you are probably wondering: Which herb works best? What form of product is best? How much should I give?

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

First, it is important to know that 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.

It is also important to know that no single herb will work effectively in each and every animal. Why? Because no two dogs or cats are alike. Where one herb will work well for calming dog “A”, the same herb may actually aggravate the emotional condition of dog “B”. For example, most herbalists regard Valerian as a somewhat “warming” herb, that when ingested tends 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.

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.

THE BEST FORMULATION FOR FIDO

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.

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 added 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 fact, in the 15 years of working with hundreds of holistic vets who have employed St. John’s wort, I have yet to see it actually work upon the mood or behavior of any animal. 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.

So what DOES work? Well, when I am faced with a cat who insists on climbing the walls or a dog that hides under the furniture during a thunderstorm, I reach for my Tranquility Blend formula (available from Animal Essentials)— a combination of valerian root (Valeriana off), skullcap herb (Scutellaria laterifolia), Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) and Oat flowers (Avena sativa). These four time honored herbs combine to create a balanced formula that is safe and effective for all animal types. Plus, the product is in the form of a sweet-tasting glycerin liquid that is easy to feed.

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