Whenever I think about the term “hyperactive,” I’m immediately reminded of two powerful statements that have been the cornerstone of everything I do in my holistic practice:
“In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals, for Tirawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent certain animals to tell man that he showed himself through the beasts, and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and the moon should man learn . . . all things tell of Tirawa.”
—Eagle Chief Letakots-Lesa,
Pawnee Tribe, late 1800s
“We believe that the animals were sent here to accept our diseases and show us how to heal them.”
—Tis Mal Crow, Native American “root doctor” and author of Native Plants, Native Healing (The Book Publishing, 2001)
Given the onslaught of potentially damaging medicines being used today to treat hyperactivity in children (and recently in dogs), I think it’s important to return to these maxims and apply them, using the teachings of our four-legged companions to help us with our understanding and treatments for hyperactivity in our kids and our animals.
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 diagnosed as having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When the hyperactivity component is lacking, as is often the case in girls, the term for a purer attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is applied.
Now, the big question is: Do pets have a disorder similar to ADHD? As in human medicine, it depends entirely on who you talk to. Some say yes; others insist no. 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 domestic dogs.
Rather than worrying about the specific criteria that define hyperactivity in animals, I think we need to think about the “nature” of the beast who has been labeled hyperactive, because within nature is where all healing ultimately begins and ends.
Because most cats sleep nearly all day, this article will focus on hyperactivity in dogs. For that rare hyperactive cat, the same ideas and treatment methods apply.
The nature of hyperactive animals
If we are to diagnose hyperactivity, it’s critical to realize that animals, 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 nature of the animal we’re working with. For example, almost all puppies and kittens are hyperactive—that’s their nature. Or, while we might think it’s inappropriate for our dog to go absolutely gaga whenever he’s in the midst of a bunch of other dogs (when he goes to obedience class, for example), it’s a perfectly natural response for dogs to want to enthusiastically greet and play with other dogs.
Also, hyperactivity depends on the animal’s genes. Most hounds could lie around and sleep all day—until they are given the scent of prey, at least. However, terriers (and some other breeds such as border collies) are almost incessantly hyperactive. Compared to the average Persian cat, a Siamese is hyperactive.
Dealing with hyperactivity
Here are several tips to help you deal with your pet’s hyperactivity.
Learn to accept a certain amount of hyperactivity, depending on the breed, the time of day, and the surrounding circumstances.
Tone down your environment. Animals respond to excess stimuli. If you want to set off your critter’s potential for hyperactivity, turn up the stereo while you and the rest of the family and all your dozens of visiting friends are in a constant dither. Chill out and calm down the external noises, and your critters will also chill and calm down.
Good nutrition. Avoid foods laden with 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 the omega-3s) and lactobacillus (unsweetened yogurt is a good source).
Frequent exercise. There’s simply nothing better for calming the hyper critter than exercise—a nice long walk each day along with a twice-a-day romp in the grass is ideal.
Have your dog’s thyroid checked. Some behavioral scientists believe that low thyroid hormone levels may contribute to hyperactivity.
Use herbs and aromatherapy as natural calmers. Also consider chiropractic, acupuncture, and homeopathy.
Herbs for the hyperactive critter
Some of my favorite herbal remedies for hyperactivity are listed below. For any of the herbs, you can make a tea and add it to your pets’ food, sprinkle the herb directly on their food, or give them capsules or tablets.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). If there ever was an herb matched to a condition, it’s valerian root for hyperactivity. Valerian acts as a nerve tonic—acting either as a sedative or tranquilizer or as a stimulant, depending on what’s needed. Best of all, valerian has almost no side effects. (A small number of people are stimulated by valerian rather than quieted.)
Oats (Avena sativa). Also a nervine tonic, this herb is another of my favorite herbs for nervous problems of all ilk. Nearly all animals like oats, and you can plant some seeds in a flowerpot and let your pet munch on the green oat grass when it’s a few inches tall.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). Another good herb for nervous disorders in critters is St. John’s wort. In people, its primary use is for mild to moderate depression, but I have had reasonably good results using it for the animal suffering from separation anxiety—dogs that typically go nutso (hyperactive) whenever they are left alone.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Ginkgo is an herb I’ve recently begun to prescribe for hyperactive dogs, using an entirely different approach from the “calming” herbs. People with ADHD often complain about the excess “noise” that goes on in their heads. Ginkgo is a good herb to enhance mental acuity; theoretically, then, ginkgo might help the patient sort out all these noises and make it easier to deal with stress. It’s still too early to tell what kind of results to expect with ginkgo, but it’s an herb worth a try.
Also, consider trying aromatherapy. Getting your pet to take his dose of aromatherapy is the nicest part of this method. There are dozens of easy ways to get the fragrance into the room where your pet stays: nebulizers that disperse the aroma throughout the room, various devices that utilize the heat of a lamp bulb to waft the fragrance into the air, or simply putting the essential oil (or even the whole herb) into a pillow under the pet’s sleeping place, for example.
My favorite essential oil for pets is lavender, an aroma proven to quiet barking dogs in kennels. Other aromas to consider include chamomile, white sage, hops, lilac, and rose petals.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve worked with some dogs that I couldn’t get to calm down, no matter what therapy I tried, and ultimately some of these dogs had to use Western drugs combined with behavior therapy. But with all of the side effects inherent in the drug approach, it just makes good sense to me to start with the herbs first; you can always use the drugs if or when they are absolutely necessary.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for ten years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri.
Information provided in “Pet corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.