Is your dog a “nervous Nelly?“ Anxiety is common in our canine companions, so here’s how to help him chill using a holistic, natural approach.
Is your dog anxious? Not only are anxious behaviors difficult to deal with, but they can have a detrimental effect on your dog’s health and well-being. Taking a holistic approach to your canine companion’s anxiety can not only calm him down and improve his quality of life, but also avoids the potentially nasty side effects of conventional meds.
How can I tell if my dog is anxious?
Anxiety in dogs can manifest in many ways. Airplane and car rides, thunderstorms, fireworks, and the presence of other pets or unfamiliar animals in the home or yard are just some examples of anxiety triggers.
One of the most common forms of anxiety in dogs is separation anxiety. When a dog is kept apart from a person to whom he’s attached, he may exhibit the following behaviors:
- Vocalizing (barking, howling, whining)
- Destructive tendencies (biting/tearing, scratching)
- Behavior changes (lethargy, increased tendency to sleep)
- Agitation (pacing, repeatedly walking a particular route around the house or yard)
- Ptyalism (salivation/drooling)
- Tachypnea (panting, increased respiratory effort)
- Inappropriate elimination (urination and defecation)
- Pica (consumption of non-edible materials)
- Digestive tract upset (reduced appetite, vomiting, diarrhea)
In my holistic veterinary practice, I always strive to reduce my patients’ reliance on medications by taking a multi-modal approach to their healthcare. Although it takes dedication on behalf of the veterinary and client care-providing team, it can reduce a patient’s reliance on behavior-modifying medications with potential side effects. Here are some of the modalities and remedies I use for my canine patients.
1. Lifestyle modifications
One of the most effective (and least expensive) means of naturally reducing anxiety occurs through exercise and other forms of behavioral stimulation. If your dog suffers from anxiety, exercise is one means by which you can help him.
Young and highly energetic breeds (border collie, Jack Russell terrier, Weimaraner, etc.) and their mixes generally need more activity to “get out the crazies” than do senior and more sedentary canines. Chasing a ball or Frisbee, playing with other dogs, going for a run or hike, and other vigorous activities are suitable for many youngsters. Older dogs and those with illnesses or mobility issues may get sufficient behavioral stimulation from less intense and lower-impact activities like walking around the neighborhood or having a canine buddy come over to hang out. Non-exercise options for stimulation include toys, treat dispensers and more.
Besides providing behavioral stimulation, exercise promotes your dog’s cardiac output, tissue oxygenation, lymphatic drainage, metabolism, lean muscle mass and more.
2. Pheromone collars and diffusers
Dogs naturally exude pheromones, hormone-like chemicals which create signals that are picked up by other animals and can influence behaviors.
Products like DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) can help calm an anxious pooch and come in collar diffuser and spray versions. They have been quite beneficial for clients of mine who find it challenging to get oral products into their dogs, or for patients with digestive tract upsets that could be exacerbated by oral medications or supplements.
3. Compression shirts
These shirt-like garments for dogs function like a baby’s swaddling blanket and have an anxiety-reducing effect. The Thundershirt is arguably the most popular compression shirt available. It’s well-tolerated by dogs and is a non-invasive means of reducing anxiety from thunderstorms and other triggers. “It calms a dog by applying gentle, constant pressure around the torso,” says CEO and founder Phil Blizzard. “It’s believed that this pressure releases oxytocin, a calming hormone.”
4. Products for inappropriate eliminators
Inappropriate elimination (urination and defecation) is another manifestation of anxiety. Dogs are biologically programmed to not soil their beds or personal space, so they are less likely to act on the urge to inappropriately eliminate when they wear some form of garment that covers their penis, vulva or anus.
For male dogs, a belly band, which resembles a belt and covers the penis, can deter the urge to stream or dribble urine. For female inappropriate urinators, and dogs of either sex prone to improperly defecating, doggie diapers that cover the hind end can deter the urge to poop.
5. Acupuncture, acupressure and massage
Acupuncture involves the insertion of needles into the body to stimulate points along the body’s 12 meridians. It promotes blood circulation, modulates the nervous system’s sensation and motor response, and releases anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving chemicals. Liquids such as vitamin B12 or chondroprotectant medications can also be injected into acupuncture points. Electricity (electrostimulation), heat (moxibustion) or laser can be applied to needles or tissues to stimulate an energetic change.
Acupressure, which applies pressure to acupuncture points, as well as massage, can elicit a response comparable to acupuncture. You can be instructed on acupressure and massage techniques that have a calming effect, so treatment can be done on an as-needed basis.
Acupuncture points associated with eliciting behavior changes include GV 20, HT 7 (Spirit Gate), ST 40 (Master Point for Phlegm), BL 15 (Association Point for the Heart), CV 14 (Mu/Master Point of the Heart), CV 22 (Influential Point for Phlegm) and others.
6. Chinese medicine food energy treatment
According to Eight Principle Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are eight types of energy capable of affecting the body: excess, deficiency, interior, exterior, hot, cold, yin and yang.
Generally, anxious behaviors are due to an excess of energy manifested from the interior of the body (although they can also be affected by exterior factors). Anxiety is associated with heat negatively affecting the Shen (spirit), and is considered to have yang qualities (warming, drying, uplifting and masculine).
For anxious patients, foods and treats should have cooling energetic properties to quell excess yang. Examples include:
- Protein: cottage cheese, duck, fish (e.g. salmon, tuna), goose, pheasant, rabbit, tofu, turkey, yogurt
- Vegetables/fruit: banana, broccoli, cranberry cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, melon, mint, mushroom, pear, spinach, tomato
- Grains/beans: barley, buckwheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, wheat/wheat bran
Fresh, non- to minimally-cooked foods are best.
7. Nutraceuticals (supplements) and herbs
Natural products I’ve used for canine anxiety include Bach Flower essences, melatonin, theanine, tryptophan and various herbal combinations. Three of my preferred products are Jing Tang Herbal Shen Calmer, Bach’s Rescue Remedy Pet, and Rx Vitamins for Pets’ Nutricalm.
Editor’s note: Another product to help ease anxiety is Zesty Paws Calming Bites. “These chewable treats promote non-drowsy composure to help dogs feel more at ease in their surroundings,“ says Julia Yochum, Marketing Manager. “They feature Suntheanine®, a 100% pure non-GMO form of L-theanine. It safely stimulates the brain’s alpha waves to help dogs feel calm yet alert in conditions that trigger stress and anxiety. The formula also contains hemp, thiamine, chamomile, valerian root, and L-tryptophan, all of which can reduce anxiety.“
Cannabis extracts have calming effect
A topic of some controversy in veterinary medicine is the use of extracts from the Cannabis sativa L. plant (marijuana) for medicinal purposes, such as calming anxiety.
Mammals posses an endocannabinoid system (ECS) in their bodies. This system comprises a series of cannabinoid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, immune system cells, fat, kidneys, liver, muscles, salivary glands, skin and other tissues. Cannabinoids are naturally produced by the body and act to modulate appetite, behavior, inflammation, pain, organ system function and more.
Cannabis sativa L. contains two primary phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids) –cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD is non-psychoactive (mind-altering) and can have antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and sedating effects. THC has psychoactive qualities and induces euphoria, as well as having analgesic, anti-convulsant, anti-emetic, anti-inflammatory and other medicinal properties.
At this time, it’s illegal for veterinarians to dispense or even consult with clients about cannabis extracts for their animals, since marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 illegal drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Studies involving the use of medical marijuana to treat arthritis and seizure disorders in pets are currently underway at Colorado State University. The results may help facilitate the recognition of cannabis extracts as a useful medicinal tool for pets.
Before trying any new herbs or supplements, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian appropriately trained in their use. I’ve used a combination of herbs, acupuncture and acupressure to successfully reduce anxiety in canine patients, and reduce reliance on medications.
If you and your vet are unable to improve your dog’s anxious behaviors with the recommendations in this article, consult with a board-certified veterinary behavior specialist. In most cases, however, using a holistic approach with natural remedies will effectively ease your dog’s anxiety.