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,
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
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
• 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
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
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
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.