Obviously, I see a lot of anxious pets every day. Some of those animals will be able to learn alternative behaviors that reduce their anxiety without the need for anything more than due diligence on the part of their owners, and behavioral modification techniques they learn from me. It's wonderful when a pet can go from being anxious to content with just a few changes to their environment, routine, etc. For many animals, however, behavioral modification is simply not enough; they are profoundly anxious and their anxiety is affecting their quality of life and that of their owners as well. These pets are going to need something more.
Many of my clients resist any kind of therapeutic intervention. They want their pets to "get better without drugs." While I can certainly understand not wanting to give your pet unnecessary medications, anti-anxiety medications are most certainly not frivolous/unnecessary or a crutch. I've had several clients tell me that using anti-anxiety medications for their pet would be viewed by their friends and family as "ridiculous or indulgent" and a "waste of time." This is truly unfortunate as such misguided and outdated notions keep pets (and their owners!) from living their best lives. But how do you know if your pet needs medication?
Your first stop should always be your veterinarian. They need to understand what you are facing with your pet. Is your pet's anxiety situational (like my daughter's smooth collie, Westley, who is afraid of garbage trucks and experiences anxiety on garbage day) or is it more generalized (like my client's cat who has been anxious every day since her twins were born)? Are there more good days than bad? Does your pet enjoy the things that they should be enjoying (e.g. meals, exercise, play time, etc.) or is their anxiety keeping them from doing so? Your veterinarian will ask you all of these questions and more during your appointment. They will likely suggest doing blood work as well if they are going to recommend starting a course of anti-anxiety medication. Routine blood work and regular check ups are a necessary part of treating your pet's anxiety. Any drug you start for your pet must be monitored, whether that drug is for heart disease or for anxiety.
Some of my clients want to jump right in and start traditional anti-anxiety medications for their pets, and this is great. For a lot of them, they've had their own anxiety to deal with over the years and found great relief in traditional forms of anti-anxiety medication. This isn't true for everyone, however, and I've certainly had a lot of clients over the years who want to delay the use of any type of medication as long as possible. For these clients, exploring alternative therapies is the place to start. Let's look at a few alternative, or holistic solutions for anxious pets.
Anti-Anxiety Wraps: Whether a do-it-yourself wrap made from an Ace bandage or old t-shirt, or one of the vests made by companies like ThunderShirt, anxiety wraps are founded on the same principle, which is that constant, steady pressure applied to your dog's torso (compression) has a calming effect, much as swaddling a baby or hugging a person when they are upset does. Obviously, not every infant likes being swaddled (my daughter, Jessica, sure didn't!), nor does every human in distress want to be hugged. By the same token, not every anxious dog will enjoy nor benefit from wearing an anti-anxiety wrap. For some dogs, being wrapped tightly just makes them more anxious. It is also true that such wraps are the most beneficial to dogs whose anxiety is situational and predictable. Thus, if your dog gets anxious when your gardener mows the lawn every week, then an anti-anxiety wrap might work for your dog; that's a specific, predictable situation in which to try something like this. If, however, your dog is anxious with a lot of noises, including everyday noises that are hard to predict like icemakers, trucks backing up, etc., then an anti-anxiety wrap will be less effective for your dog. By design, these wraps are not made to be worn all the time, making them better for cases of situational anxiety, rather than generalized anxiety.
DAP and Feliway: Both DAP, Dog Appeasing Pheromones, and Feliway, work on the same principle which is that these soothing pheromones released in the dog or cat's environment will lead to a feeling of calm and a reduction of stress and anxiety. DAP is a synthetic chemical scent that mimics the smells dogs are supposed to associate with being a puppy cared for by their mother. Feliway mimics the pheromones released by female cats to soothe their kittens. Thus, both products are based on the notion that "mom smells" are soothing and will calm anxious animals. Obviously, this won't work for every anxious animal, particularly those with profound anxiety, and are thus often used in conjunction with other alternative solutions or in combination with more traditional anti-anxiety medications. DAP and Feliway come in plug-in diffusers or sprays and DAP also comes in a collar for dogs to wear.
Melatonin: I've had many clients over the years who've used Melatonin themselves to help them sleep. Melatonin can also be used in dogs and cats for sleep-related issues, but may have broader application for dogs with anxiety, manifesting as restlessness or reactivity. Melatonin can be sedating and is a hormonal supplement which mimics a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies and the bodies of our pets, thus you will want to check with your veterinarian before giving Melatonin to your pets. They can advise you on whether it is safe for your specific pet and if so, what dosage to begin with.
Cholodin: Cholodin is a dietary supplement that contains choline (an essential nutrient found in foods and that aids in metabolism), amino acids, vitamins, and minerals and can be helpful for geriatric dogs and cats. Giving Cholodin to older pets can help with age-related issues such as lethargy, changes to appetite, changes to their sleep/wake cycle, and decline in their mental acuity. Cholodin is often suggested as the place to start with older dogs suffering from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction before beginning more traditional pharmaceutical options.
CBD: CBD is the abbreviation for cannabinoids. It isn't just humans that have receptors in their brain for these naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis plants. There are over 100 recognized cannabinoids that have been derived from cannabis plants and known to have varying medicinal properties and effects for particular mammals. While CBD will not be effective for every anxious dog or cat, it can certainly be helpful to many and worth trying. Choose a company whose products have undergone research and testing, with consistent sourcing, guaranteeing that the product you purchased for your pet today will be the same quality as the product you bought two months ago. Do keep in mind that the dosage that will/may work for your pet varies, with some pets requiring more or less than others for the desired effects. For example, cats generally take a higher dosage than dogs (almost twice the amount!) and that's because they don't have as many cannabinoid receptors as dogs do. As with melatonin, you will want to check with your veterinarian first before giving CBD just to make sure it doesn't interact with any other medications your pet may be taking or any underlying medical conditions they may have.
This is just an overview of some of the alternative therapies available to our pets. There are, quite frankly, hundreds of different products on the market touted as aiding in anxiety reduction for cats and dogs. I've found, however, that most of these do absolutely nothing in terms of treating anxiety. At best they aren't harmful, just a potential waste of money, at worst they are harmful in that pet owners continue to use them when they are having no helpful effects on their pet's behavior. Starting with an alternative option like those listed above is a good place to start, but your pet may still end up needing a more traditional anti-anxiety medication, and that's okay too. You are investing in their health and happiness as well as your own.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.