Like the people who keep them, pets exhibit a wide range of emotional excitability. Pets vary greatly in the amount of stress they feel when strangers visit, when they are taken for a car ride or when they’re confronted with firecrackers or the “boomers” from thunderstorms. Some pets snooze right through the most unsettling of noises or activities; others feel anxiety, stress and downright terror whenever they are exposed to any minor change in their ordinary routine. Fortunately, many herbs and other remedies can help these “serenity-challenged” pets get through their most disturbing days.
Note that I made a connection between the pet’s behavior and the pet’s people: Many of the most “hyper” dogs I’ve seen have come from households where the people are also hyperactive. When I recommend a remedy for the household pet, I commonly also recommend the same remedy for the two-legged members of the household.
Words that are commonly bandied about when discussing the hyperactive critter include “emotional stress,” “separation anxiety” and the terms used in human medicine, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, each of these terms is difficult to define and an accurate description of their symptoms is often extremely elusive … especially in pets.
What is Hyperactivity?
In human medicine, children who have difficulty concentrating, are not good at following directions, fidget constantly, find it hard to sit still and are easily bored are often termed hyperactive, or ADHD. In girls, the hyper- activity component is often lacking, giving rise to a purer attention deficit disorder, ADD.
Now, the big question is, do dogs and cats have a similar disorder? Well, much as in human medicine, it depends entirely on who you talk to. One prominent veterinary behavior expert says she has yet to diagnose a case of hyperactivity in dogs; another says he feels hyperactivity is the driving force behind many of the behavior problems we see in dogs.
Most cats could be termed hypoactive — curled up on the couch is their preferred modus operandi most of the time. So, although I’ve seen a very rare cat who might meet some of the criteria for hyperactivity for a few minutes a day, they are the exception. For that rare hyperactive cat, the same ideas and treatment methods apply.
The Nature of Hyperactivity
It is important to realize that all animals can act and react in ways that are not “socially correct” at any one particular time. We also need to realize that our concept of socially correct may or may not fit the concept of the animal we are working with. Here are some examples:
• Almost all puppies and most kittens are hyperactive. That’s their nature. As my wife says, whenever I begin to whine about anything, “Get used to it.”
• What would be termed normal activity in one family group might be thought of as extreme hyperactivity by another family. Whenever we go to visit our daughters’ families, for example, I realize how old I’ve become in just the past few years and how quiet our household has grown since the kids have left home. Although it’s a joy to be around our grandkids’ exuberance, I find that I only have about 30 minutes of tolerance for that activity level.
• Hyperactivity depends on time and place. While we might think it is inappropriate for the dog to go absolutely gaga whenever he is in the midst of a bunch of other dogs (when he goes to obedience class, for example), it is a perfectly natural response for dogs to want to enthusiastically greet and play rowdy with other dogs.
• Perceived levels of stress depend on the genes. Most hounds could lie around and sleep all day — until they are given the scent of prey, at least. On the other hand, terriers (and some other breeds, such as border collies) are almost incessantly in motion. Compared to the average Persian cat, a Siamese is hyperactive.
Sorting Out Separation Anxiety
Some animals, especially dogs, simply cannot stand being left alone. Remember that dogs are pack animals by nature, and they much prefer the presence of the rest of their pack/family to being all by themselves. Whenever their caretakers leave the house, dogs (and occasionally cats) exhibit separation anxiety behavior by crying, howling and wailing pitifully (your neighbor is likely to tell you when this happens), tearing up whatever they can get their teeth and claws into and even defecating and urinating all over their surroundings. Many dogs may exhibit some anxiety when their people leave, until they become accustomed to the normal household routine. True separation anxiety can be a most dramatic and frustrating behavior to deal with.
Behavior modification is probably the best first step when dealing with separation anxiety, and methods include gradually acclimating the dog to longer and longer periods when the humans are away from the house and/or getting him used to being in a crate while you are gone. (The crate is a place where the dog feels safe and calms down — much like a den, where wild dogs spend much of their time.) Check with a dog trainer for methods to combat separation anxiety. Many of the herbs discussed in this article also may be helpful.
Ways to Minimize Stress
1. Learn to accept a certain amount of anxiety or activity from your pet, depending on the breed of critter, the time of day and the surrounding circumstances.
2. Tone down your environment. All animals respond to excess stimuli. Lower the volume of TVs, stereos and conversations, and your critters may calm down.
3. Good nutrition. Avoid foods laden with pesticides and herbicides, synthetic preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, sweeteners and anything on the label that you can’t pronounce. Use organic foods whenever possible. Consider a low-protein diet. (There is some evidence that indicates a low-protein diet may decrease the incidence of hyperactivity in dogs.) Add a multivitamin and mineral supplement along with essential fatty acids (particularly omega-3s) and lactobacillus (unsweetened yogurt is a good source).
4. Look for sources that might be causing allergies, thus increasing hyperactivity. Sources might include foods — especially highly processed foods or those that contain artificial preservatives, colorings or flavors; pesticides and herbicides used on the lawn (or in pet foods); chemicals found in new furniture, rugs or paints; and all those chemical cocktails found in the garage or under the sink.
5. Frequent exercise. There’s simply nothing better for calming the hyper critter than exercise — a nice long walk or trot every day along with a couple-of-times-a-day romp in the grass with her human is ideal.
6. Use behavioral modification. Humans and dogs want to do whatever it takes to be an integral part of the pack. Most animals can be taught to behave in ways that are appropriate to their pack (that would be you). Consult with a good dog trainer.
7. Have your dog’s thyroid checked. Some behavioral scientists believe that low thyroid hormone levels may contribute to hyperactivity.
8. Use herbs, aromatherapy and flower essences as natural calmers. Consider chiropractic, acupuncture and constitutional homeopathy as additional therapies.
Herbs to Soothe the Savage Beast
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). Herbalists the world over use valerian root for stress-induced anxiety, muscle tension and insomnia. Valerian acts as a nerve tonic — acting either as a sedative or a stimulant, depending on what is needed. What’s more, it does not cause a hangover effect the next day, it is nonaddictive and it actually improves coordination. Valerian works directly on the higher centers of the central nervous system to help relieve tension and restlessness as well as helping relax muscles.
A sprinkle of freshly ground valerian root, either by itself or atop your pet’s food, is my favorite way of giving the herb, which also is available in tablets, capsules and tinctures.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria). If you’ve ever watched your cat excitedly rolling around in catnip leaves, this may seem like a strange choice as a calming herb. Watch your cat after the euphoric high, however, and you’ll appreciate catnip’s latent calming effect. First the buzz, then time to relax.
So, give your cat a healthy snifter before the car trip or other stress, let him have his jollies, then give him a quiet place to sleep it off. You can repeat this every couple of hours.
Oats (Avena sativa). For many reasons, oats are another of my favorite herbs for nervous problems of all ilk. Oats work as a nervine tonic, de- pressing the nervous system when necessary; stimulating it when that is indicated. Nearly all animals like oats, and it can be fed in a variety of ways: as a tea or as a sprinkle added to their daily diet, as cooked oats (oatmeal) that will also provide a source of fiber, or you can plant some seeds in a flower pot (or outside in the garden), and let your pet munch on the green oat grass when it is a few inches tall.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is another good herb for nervous disorders in critters. In people, its primary use is for mild to moderate depression, and in Europe, St. John’s wort is also used to treat anxiety and insomnia. I have had reasonably good results using it for treating animals suffering from separation anxiety. Use tablets, capsules, tinctures or sprinkles whenever you will be leaving the animal that simply cannot stand the thought of being alone. It is also a good herb to try for any hyperactive animal.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is another potent sedative, used to calm the stressed animal’s anxiety. It has the added advantage that it will calm your pet’s belly and tend to put him to sleep as well. Chamomile is an herb to consider before the car ride over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house — to ease the upset stomach and put your pet to sleep for the duration. Some pets enjoy chamomile tea as much as we do, or you can soak a small treat with the tea.
Calming Flower Essences
Flower essences (Bach Flowers and other brands) are essences of flowers that experience tells me work especially well on emotional states — anxiety, stress and hysteria. Typically mixed by adding a few drops of the remedy to an ounce of spring water, these flower essences are extremely easy to administer. The mixture is squirted in the pet’s mouth or in his water, or spritzed over his head and body using a plant mister. You can use one remedy at a time, or several can be mixed together.
Rescue Remedy is the “Mother of All Remedies” for the emergency when your pet needs to chill out right now, or when pet is under extreme stress, such as from an oncoming thunderstorm, a visit from the grandkids (save some for yourself), Independence Day, or a trip to the vet.
Other good flower essences include vervain, for animals that are hyperactive and always on the go, overenthusiastic, impulsive, high-strung, tense and exuberant. Vervain combines well with chestnut bud in the treatment of compulsive disorders.
Cherry plum helps the animal with uncontrollable behavior, craziness and compulsiveness. It is also good for the animal that freaks out in strange environments, and for the critter with self-destructive behavior or the animal that sometimes becomes frantic and destroys household furniture.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website, www.herbsforhealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.
Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.