Dog Anxiety, Nervousness, and Behavioral Problems
Holistic approaches to dog anxiety and nervousness.
Excerpt from Herbs for Pets
It is part of human nature to impose our ideals of acceptable behavior upon our beloved animals. Unfortunately, though, many of us find it difficult to separate these ideals from what makes each animal special, unique, and happy. Thousands of animals are euthanized each year because they were “untrainable” or “uncontrollable,” “barked too much,” or were simply “too much to bear.” Many of these animals were put to death not because there was something untreatably wrong with them but because their identities clashed with their caregivers’.
One of the greatest gifts offered to us by animals comes when we learn to look beyond our own needs to their happiness. Our eight-year-old shepherd/husky dog, Willow, still barks incessantly, whines obnoxiously on trips to the river, and jumps up onto house guests despite our continuing efforts to direct her toward our needs. Sometimes we want to pull out our own hair and tie her snout shut with it, but instead we have developed patience and respect for her personal nature. Willow is simply doing what she must do to be complete and happy, and while we are still working on the guest-mauling issue, we have learned to accept her just the way she is. By reaching this level of acceptance, we have been rewarded with the joy she brings to us as we rejoice with her in her rapturous journey through life. Granted, there is a social stigma attached to certain types of animal behavior. But before we step in and choose what is best for us, we owe it to our animal companions to look at the world through their eyes—perhaps even before we bring one of them home.
Anxiety, nervousness, fear, occasional aggression, and depression are normal emotions of each and every animal’s life. Some animals may be terrified of thunder, cars, vets, and stairs. Others may dislike children or other animals. Active dog breeds (such as border collies) usually need wide-open spaces to run, and they become anxious if confined. Many cats who would rather sleep than play become nervous wrecks during car rides. But if your animal’s behavior changes suddenly or if his nervous tendencies worsen over time, your animal may be ill.
Contrary to conventional standards, holistic treatment of anxiety, nervousness, or behavioral problems does not begin with the use of sedative or antidepressive medicines but with a critical examination of the caregiver’s perspective of a situation. Are we really treating anxiety or aggression, or is the problem a symptom of something going on deeper within the animal or his environment? Perhaps the problem is not really the animal’s at all but instead emanates from the caregiver’s unfulfilled expectations.
Emotional, behavioral, and nervous disorders can result from nutritional deficiencies, endocrine disease, vaccinosis, drug side effects, parasites, neurological disease, or psychological problems. Like humans, animals can suffer from chronic depression that is secondary to chemical imbalances in the brain. But before treating depression with Prozac (fluoxetine HCl) or Saint-John’s-wort, a thorough assessment of the animal’s diet, health care history, and environment should be made. In most cases, the caregiver is likely to find that the problem is correctable with dietary changes, some loving attention, and perhaps the correct homeopathic remedy.
Our approach toward aggression, depression (which is manifested by a lack of energy, whining, separation anxiety, to name a few symptoms), nervousness, chronic anxiety, or hyperactivity always begins with changing the animal’s diet (usually to raw food) and supplementing it with a complement of vitamins, minerals, and EFAs. If this does not effect a positive change, the animal should be checked by a veterinarian for underlying physiological disorders such as thyroid or adrenal gland problems, malabsorption, tumors, parasites, or diabetes mellitus. Once the underlying causes are identified, they can be treated with applicable herbs, homeopathic remedies, aromatherapy, flower essences, or nutritional therapies. Behavioral training, therapeutic touch, or a few sessions with a reputable animal communicator may also yield good results.
In all chronic cases, the sedative herbs (e.g., valerian, skullcap, passionflower) should be limited to temporary control of symptoms during times of added stress such as dreaded car rides to the veterinarian. We do not condone the use of sedative herbs on a daily lifelong basis—not only because of potential side effects but because they may mask symptoms that are important to recognize in reaching curative solutions. Likewise, Saint-John’s-wort and other antidepressants should be reserved for cases when chronic depression is known to be secondary to brain chemical imbalances.
Adaptogenic herbs such as Siberian ginseng, astragalus, and certified-organic ginseng, may be used continually in moderation to boost the body’s functional abilities under stress.
Aggression and Depression Disorders
As of 1999, the use of Prozac had become almost as fashionable for treating aggressive animals as it had for humans with chronic depression disorders. Likewise, Saint-John’s-wort had been touted as “the herbal alternative to Prozac,” and it too had become popular for treating aggression and other behavioral and emotional disorders in animals.
Although Saint-John’s-wort and psychotropic drugs may have a place in the treatment of certain disorders, they are not the panaceas that some companies would like us to believe they are. Many experts believe that these substances may actually cause a reverse effect in some animals. In Peter Neville’s acclaimed book Do Dogs Need Shrinks? he cites case histories in which Prozac not only failed to curb aggression but seemingly increased it. One case involved a two-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier who was given the drug to stop him from assaulting other dogs. Initially the attacks stopped, but later the dog resumed his hostile behavior—and when he was taken off Prozac, he became more aggressive than ever. Another case involved a three-year-old Pointer who was given Prozac to stop her from constantly chasing shadows. After three days she began attacking real dogs instead.
Compounding the potential problems of reverse or other adverse side effects is our limited ability to accurately identify the causes of aggression and depression disorders in animals. The diagnosis needed to prudently prescribe such drugs is severely limited by lack of verbal communication between animal and healer. In other words, psychotropic drugs (and even the safer Saint-John’s-wort) are usually prescribed as a speculative “shot in the dark” approach to suppression of symptoms, rather than as part of a curative solution that is based on holism.
From a holistic perspective, treatment of aggression begins in the mind of the human guardian—not the animal. The question of what may be missing from the animal’s well-being must be answered before anything else. Is the animal receiving all of the nutrients needed for proper brain function? Was the animal abused or neglected in the past? Is there a genetic predisposition to be addressed? Is there anything in the animal’s living environment that might be contributing to the problem? Has the animal had adequate opportunities to socialize with other animals and people? Is the animal’s behavior related to your own? (This is fairly common—animals often pick up the emotional tone of their living environment.)
After the animal’s diet is changed and supplemented, sessions with a good animal behaviorist are highly recommended. Animal behaviorists do not teach “sit-stay” obedience but use their expert knowledge of animal behavior and human-animal relationships to help identify and provide fulfillment of psychological requirements. For instance, most dogs who are “fear biters” do not exhibit their aggressive behavior out of hate or neurological disease but because they are insecure in the hierarchy of their “pack.” These dogs feel that their human alpha leader is not in charge of their surroundings and therefore feel constantly threatened. The animal behaviorists’ job in this situation is to help the guardian and the animal define their positions as leader-protector (the human) and safe-subordinate pack member (the dog). Horses and other herbivores, of course, have completely different psychologies—but they too can find a happier coexistence with their humans with some help from a professional behavior trainer.
Once you have begun a curative, long-term approach toward your animal’s aggression or depression, herbs can be used for symptomatic relief during occasions when stress levels are particularly high. Although many herbalists recom- mend valerian as a first choice herb for anxiety and aggression, it can have a reverse, sometimes stimulating, effect in some animals. It’s a depressant and tends to compound irritability and depression. Instead of lifting the subject’s spirit, it slows him down and often turns him into a groggy grump. So rather than reaching for valerian, we opt for herbs such as passionflower, lemon balm, chamomile, or catnip that serve more as mood elevators. Rescue Remedy (a flower essence formula) is also one of our first choices.
Acute Nervousness and Anxiety
Everyone has his or her own sources of psychological stress. Some people get nervous and tense during airplane landings. Our dogs get anxious and frightened while inside crowded buildings. Stephanie the cat trembles during the first half-hour of long car rides.
Herbs can be helpful for gently calming an animal during stressful occasions. In circumstances where fear and anxiety prohibit an otherwise passive animal from relaxing, valerian may induce just enough sedation to allow napping. If the animal’s anxiety is causing him to hiss, spit, bite, or make other demonstrations of potential violence, a dose or two of passionflower, lemon balm, or catnip may help normalize attitude and defuse the situation. If nervousness is causing trembling or hypersensitivity to touch and sound, skullcap or oatstraw can be very effective—especially if combined with valerian or passionflower. A small dose (0.25 milliliters per 30 pounds of an animal’s body weight) of vervain (Verbena officinalis) tincture may reduce
muscle twitching and restlessness, but too much of this herb may have a reverse effect. In situations where nervousness is causing an upset stomach, chamomile, valerian, catnip, or a combination of all three may help induce relaxation and prevent vomiting.
Before you reach for valerian or any other herb, try giving your pet a few drops of Rescue Remedy (flower essence formula), which you can purchase at health food stores. You and your companion may be pleasantly surprised.