Pet Corner: Herbal Calming

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For most people, summer is a season of serious fun–warm weather, vacations, long road trips, visitors, and the annual Fourth of July picnic, complete with fireworks. However, this season can be a time of high stress for pets.

Many animals suffer anxiety, stress, and downright terror whenever they are exposed to anything out of their routine, but just how worked up your pet becomes depends on disposition. Breed or size is no indication of a pet’s ability to cope with stress; in fact, a 7-pound toy poodle may cope better with firecrackers than a 150-pound Rottweiler.

In our house, Rufus, a golden retriever, loves to ride in the car, while Quixote the cat responds to car rides with ear-piercing caterwauling. But at the first rumble of a distant thunderstorm or firecracker, Rufus is underfoot, whining and sniveling, demanding we protect him. I’ve never seen Quixote or Little Cat disturbed by such noises–they can sleep right through them, curled up on the couch. And Rufus always welcomes visitors, but we’re be lucky to see the whites of Little Cat’s terrified eyes from under the couch if strangers are around.

Calming the Terrified Beast

Herbs provide a safe and effective way to help your pet “mellow out” without the incapacitating effects of the barbiturates commonly prescribed for nervous animals. And many herbs soothe the intestinal upset that can accompany stress. But it may take some time to determine which herbs work best for your pet. Not all animals react the same way to the same herb, especially calming herbs. Valerian is extremely effective for Quixote, it seems to work moderately well for Little Cat, and Rufus has almost no response. Chamomile knocks Rufus out within minutes; Quixote and Little Cat aren’t noticeably affected.

The key is to try a variety of calming herbs, and you’ll also need to experiment with the amount and frequency of dosages –start small and gradually work up to ­larger, more frequent doses if necessary, being careful to continually monitor your pet. If you notice any unusual behavior (other than the desired relaxation), discontinue the treatment immediately and consult your veterinarian.

Herbs to Try

• Oats (Avena sativa) are always my first choice for high-strung animals because they’re so good at strengthening the nervous system. A daily or weekly helping of cooked oatmeal added to your pet’s food will support the nervous system and provide a good source of fiber. You can also grow oatgrass in your garden or in a pot. Simply let it get a few inches tall, cut it back to its base, then add the clippings to your pet’s dish, or use them to make a tea to add to the animal’s food. Some cats will simply graze on oatgrass–mine do. Another way to use oats is to boil a pound of shredded organic oatstraw in 2 quarts of water and add this to the animal’s bathwater for a wonderfully calming wash.

• Valerian (Valeriana spp.) is my first choice when crisis strikes. Valerian reduces tension, anxiety, excitability, and hysteria. Although the herb smells like dirty socks, most pets love it. In fact, some cats take to valerian like catnip–rolling in it with glee. A pinch of freshly ground valerian root sprinkled on food is my favorite delivery system, but it’s also available in tablets, capsules, and tinctures. Adjust the recommended dose to fit your pet’s weight.

• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is another potent sedative, good for reducing anxiety. It’s an ideal herb to give your pet before a car trip because it soothes animals’ stomachs and eases them into a restful sleep. Some pets enjoy chamomile tea as much as we do, or you can soak a small treat in the tea. It’s also available in capsules, tablets, and tinctures.

• Catnip (Nepeta cataria) may seem like a strange choice for a calming herb, but if you’ve ever watched a cat go gaga over the plant, you’ve probably also witnessed the euphoric, calming high that follows. I often give my cats a healthy sniff before a car trip or other stressful event, let them have their jollies, then give them a quiet place to sleep it off. Catnip tea is also calming for canine companions and can soothe intestinal upsets in both cats and dogs.

• Lavender (Lavendula spp.) is especially good for quieting the incessantly ­barking dog. Moisten the dog’s food with lavender tea or simply waft its fragrance in the animal’s environment. A cotton ball with a few drops of the essential oil placed in the car for trips or tucked near the animal’s favorite resting or hiding place does the trick ­nicely. Cats also respond to lavender.

My final piece of advice relates to pet owners who often feel agitated when a pet becomes distressed. Animals sense our emotions, so you may want to calm yourself, too. When you’re calm and relaxed, your pet also is more likely to relax.

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 substitute for the advice of your ­veterinarian.

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