Chinese herbs for your dog's anxiety

Your dog is scared of loud noises, hates being left alone and is jumpier than a jack-in-the-box. Chinese herbs can calm him down by getting to the heart of canine anxiety.

“We’ve got to get help for this dog or she’s going to kill herself!” Jason Givens said to his wife Michelle. The couple had returned home that evening to find Denbigh, their English springer spaniel, frantically barking, wild-eyed with anxiety and covered with slobber.

Denbigh’s first anxiety attack occurred when she turned seven, and her attacks had been escalating ever since. After trying what seemed like everything Western medicine had to offer, Michelle called holistic veterinarian Dr. Chris Bessent. Her treatment protocol included Chinese herbs. They worked for Denbigh when nothing else did.

Anxiety means deeper problems

From the Chinese perspective, Denbigh’s anxiety attacks were a warning that something more serious was going on in her body. Anxiety in dogs can manifest in different ways including a fear of thunder and other loud noises, fear aggression, and in Denbigh’s case, separation anxiety.

In Western medicine, we think of anxiety as a neurosis or emotional behavior issue. But according to Dr. Bessent, Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) sees anxiety as a physical issue that reflects a disturbance in the dog’s heart shen.In her book Four Paws Five Directions: A Guide to Chinese Medicine for Cats and Dogs, pioneer holistic vet Cheryl Schwartz explains heart shen as “the spirit of the body” housed in the heart “from which happiness and well being arise.” Dr. Bessent describes a healthy heart shen as the ability to feel relaxed in a new environment, or the ability to settle in. Animals with poor heart shen have difficulty doing that.

“[Western] thinking is very linear,” writes Dr. Schwartz. “If A happens, B follows. There is health. There is disease. In Eastern thought, however, things are more circular. Eastern medicine talks about balance and imbalance.” In order to maintain health, Dr. Schwartz stresses the importance of recognizing an imbalance before it becomes a disease.

Left unchecked, poor heart shen can develop into other conditions. A tranquilizer might have enabled Denbigh’s family to live with her anxiety while they tried various training methods to manage her behavior. But her heart shen problem would have remained and the untreated disharmony deep within Denbigh’s body could eventually lead to more serious problems.

Five elements of Chinese medicine

Chinese medicine distills the entire world into five elements: fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Some of these elements control others, and all are affected by one other in a cyclical way. For example, the heart is the fire element, and the kidneys are the water element. So it makes sense that the kidneys (water) control the heart (fire).

“When there is an imbalance or disharmony in the heart fire, the kidneys, being the water element, should be able to control it,” explains Dr. Bessent. “Chinese herbs tonify (strengthen) the kidneys. This increases their ability to control the heart, which then allows the animal’s body to keep anxiety in check.” Western medicine’s anti-anxiety meds or tranquilizers work fast to relieve a dog’s anxiety symptoms, but the proper Chinese herbal formula goes straight to the dog’s heart shen problem and resolves it by strengthening the kidneys.

herbs for anxietyDon’t be fooled by appearances Westerners tend to be hooked on a quick fix. “I gave my dog these herbs, and he was no different next morning,” we might say. But Chinese herbs start their work from the inside out, and though at first we may not see it, improvements have begun.

Furthermore, dogs actually experience added benefits from the slower herbal healing process. Most herbal formulas contain a combination of active ingredients that work synergistically, where one ingredient helps buffer the strong effects of another. In this way, the herbs cause little or no negative side effects.

Dr. Bessent also points out that if you miss giving your dog a dose of herbs, he will not experience the sudden setback he would if you missed a pharmaceutical dosage. And what if, after a year or so, you decide your dog is doing so well he doesn’t need the herbs any longer? Even if you stopped giving them to him too soon, he would not experience a dramatic or sudden relapse; he would undergo a slow, gradual reversal of his progress. It could be two or three months before you recognize some subtle signs that the anxiety is returning, at which time you could simply put him back on the herbal formula and again begin his gradual progression toward health.

Little Denbigh is now 13 years old and free of anxiety. “She’s happy all the time,” says Michelle. “Is she going to live much longer? I think probably, but I’m not sure. But every minute she lives is going to be a better minute, for her and for me.”

What makes him anxious?

Thunder or loud noises

Your dog becomes anxious, clingy and agitated when his high sensitivity to barometric pressure warns him of a coming storm. When the storm hits, he paces, may cry or bark at cracks of thunder, hide under things, or cower in a corner and shake. After the storm, he may have trouble settling down; some dogs can be restless for hours, even days afterward. Fireworks and other loud noise can set off similar reactions.

Fear aggression

When meeting other dogs or people, your dog becomes aggressive, sometimes even biting.

Separation anxiety

Your dog panics when left alone and resorts to destructive behavior. He may chew up the carpet, shred your couch, or bloody his own nails and teeth by clawing and chewing at the door. These are all indications of his overwhelming anxiety because you are gone.

Where to find Chinese herbs

It’s not a good idea to buy and use Chinese herbs without professional assistance. Ideally, Chinese herbs are used in formulas rather than singly. The herbs work in synergy, which means the whole formula provides a greater effect than the sum of its parts, and with few or no side effects.

Holistic veterinarians practicing Chinese Medicine usually carry a line of Chinese herbs they can prescribe to their patients. Independent holistic pet stores, meanwhile, like to promote animal wellness by educating themselves on the products they sell. They usually carry Chinese herbal formulas and can help you understand how to use them.

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Jean Scherwenka is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband and rescued Lab mix Maggie. She is a board member of Redbird Writing Studio and her writing on animals has appeared in various publications.