By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 1 September 2011)
Anxiety can cause a number of problems in pets. Cats and dogs may suffer from generalized anxiety or specific phobias, such as thunder and lightning storms, visiting the veterinarian, or being separated from their owners.
Anxious cats may become aggressive or start avoiding the litter box. Anxious dogs are inclined to bark excessively, whine, chew on furniture, or use the floor as a bathroom.
Certain tranquilizers can be prescribed for anxious pets, but there is a risk of addiction. Tranquilizers also reduce inhibitions, which can cause pets to scratch, bite, or pee on the floor when they wouldn’t normally do these things. Additionally, using tranquilizers reduces the effectiveness of helpful behaviour modification techniques such as gradually exposing a phobic animal to a feared situation or individual.
Bach Flower Essences
Bach Flower Essences are extracted from various plants. Developed by Dr. Edward Bach in the 1930s, these homeopathic remedies are designed to treat negative emotional states that can affect behaviour and physical health.
The most well-known of the Bach Flower essences is Rescue Remedy, which is believed to have a calming effect on some anxious people and animals. Comprising essences of five flowers: Clematis, Cherry plum, Rockrose, Star of Bethlehem, and Impatiens, there is anecdotal evidence that this extract may help certain pets in specific situations. Although a review of controlled clinical trials found Bach Flower remedies to be no more effective than placebos in the majority of studies, many pet owners swear by them, with 28 out of 45 reviewers giving the Bach Flower Rescue Remedy for pets 4 or 5 stars for effectiveness.
Valerian is an herb that may reduce anxiety and induce muscle relaxation in both humans and dogs, and cause euphoria in cats in its plant form. Valerian’s effects have been supported by some scientific studies and not others. Most studies have used small sample sizes and have not been well designed, so more research is needed.
Valerian’s effects have been studied more extensively in dogs, and there is far less information available regarding its use with cats. In its natural plant form, valerian is a euphoria-inducing mild stimulant for cats, similar to catnip.
Valerian can cause side effects and may interact with other medications, so it’s not safe for all pets. Because some people with liver disorders have suffered liver failure when using it, valerian is not recommended for pets that suffer from liver problems.
St. John’s Wort
There is insufficient research regarding this herb’s benefits or risks for animals, and side effects and interactions with other medications may occur. Animals taking St. John’s Wort may become hypersensitive to sunlight.
This amino acid and its metabolite 5-HTP have been shown to reduce anxiety and aggression in cats and dogs. However, there is a risk of side effects such as diarrhea and vomiting, as well as interactions with other medications.
Cats urinate in inappropriate places or scratch furniture to mark their territory or because they are feeling anxious. Pheromone sprays such as Feliway have a calming effect and reduce the compulsion to mark territory in certain cats. Feliway may help cats grow comfortable with new surroundings after moving house, and can reduce situation-specific anxiety in some cats.
Pheremone sprays such as Veterinary Products Laboratories’ D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) are also available for anxious dogs. It should be noted that D.A.P. has not been studied to the same extent as Feliway, and so claims of safety and effectiveness are not as well proven.
Pets pick up on the psychological states of their owners. If an owner is anxious, a pet may become nervous as well. Owners who reduce their own anxiety in healthy ways such as engaging in intense physical exercise, deep breathing, meditation, relaxation exercises, or mind-body activities such as yoga or Thai Chi are less likely to pass anxiety along to their pets. In addition, providing pets with a healthy, natural diet, plenty of opportunities for exercise, and lots of quality time with their humans helps to reduce stress.
See Your Veterinarian
You should always check with your veterinarian before implementing natural remedies. Each pet has a unique medical profile, and certain medical conditions and medications can make herbal supplementation and other homeopathic remedies dangerous. Natural medications are not safe or effective for all pets, and may cause side effects in certain animals.
- Dodman, Nicholas, Dr. (2008). “Tryptophan (Nutricalm®),” “Valerian(Pet Power®),” “Feliway®,” “Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP®), Canine Appeasing Pheromone (Apaisine ),” and “St. John’s Wort.” PetPlace.com
- Ernst E. (2002). “’Flower Remedies’: A Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence.” Wien Klin Wochenschr, 114(23-24), pp. 963-966.
- Leonard, Perry, Dr. (n.d.). “A Garden for Cats.” University of Vermont Extension, Department of Plant and Soil Science. www.UVM.edu.
- Messonnier, Shawn, DVM. (n.d.). “Relieving Anxiety in Pets.”