Are there holistic alternatives for phobia and anxiety?
Here in South Florida we send out a lot of sedatives and anxiety-reducing medications for thunderstorms, fireworks, and other loud events that induce noise phobias in our pets. This year as thunderstorm season approaches, I’d like to mention some holistic options for pets with mild symptoms. Don’t get me wrong… I still think a lot of pets benefit from a dose of trazodone or gabapentin when the fireworks start to boom. The fear can be intense for our pets!
Nonetheless, for pets with mild noise phobia, there are some alternatives. Since I often hear from clients that they want something “natural” I figured I’d list some holistic options.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It has calming effects in humans and in pets without causing drowsiness. It’s quite safe and increases dopamine and serotonin levels. It is available under 3 brand names for veterinary use: Composure by Vetri-Science (available in liquid, capsules, and chews) and Anxitane by Virbac (which comes in tasty tablets that even cats like), and Solliquin by Nutramax (available in chews).
With thunderstorm season approaching south Florida I now have all 3 of these products in my vet clinic. I figure a pet may prefer one flavor over another. All these products are for dogs and cats and can be used on a regular basis or just for stressful events. One of my dearest friends has recently gone through a lot of financial stress, and her doctor suggested L-theanine to help calm her anxiety which in turn helps her sleep. She swears by it. Of course, hers comes in powder form rather than a tasty pet chew. If you prefer to get an over the counter L theanine the dose is:
- 10-20 lbs: 100 mg every 6 hours
- 21-40 lbs: 200mg every 6 hours
- 41-60 lbs: 300 mg every 6 hours
- 61-80 lbs: 400 mg every 6 hours
- 81+ lbs: 500 mg every 6 hours
I have had some success for anxious dogs with the Royal Canin Calm diet in my practice. Of course, this is a diet that you feed as a regular food on a day to day basis rather than prior to a thunderstorm. It contains L-tryptophan and hydrolyzed milk proteins. For pets, with mild anxiety, it’s definitely worth a try. Word on the street is that both the dog and cat Calm diets are delicious. You can buy the milk protein (alpha-casozepine) that is in the Calm diet by itself in a product called Zylkene. It’s not inexpensive but for some pets does the trick! Calm Diet and Zylkene can be pricey for large dogs, but Calm Diet is affordable for small pets.
Most of us have heard by now that the bacteria in our guts have a huge impact on our immunity. It turns out it also has significant effect on our demeanor. Purina came out with a probiotic for both dogs and cats called “Calming Care” that specifically helps anxious pets re-populate their digestive tracts with germs that promotes calm and relaxation. Talk about holistic! It is very safe and we love it.
Pheromones! Pheromone collars are available for dogs. Dog-appeasing pheromone is a synthetic version of the pheromone that nursing female dogs release from their mammary glands. It’s calming to dogs. DAP comes in collars (that must fit snugly to work), diffusers (kind of like a Glade Plug in), and in a spray. For cats, Feliway is a synthetic version of feline facial pheromone. (When your kitty is rubbing his jaw or chin or cheeks against you he is leaving his scent on you and saying to other cats, “Yeah, this human is MINE!”) Another compatible brand of feline facial pheromone is called Comfort Zone. This pheromone decreases anxiety in cats. I’ve used Feliway for years with mixed success.
Sometimes it is amazing and sometimes owners don’t notice a difference at all. Feliway is most often used as a diffuser but also comes in spray and wipes. Pheromones are usually used for chronic mild anxiety rather than an acutely stressful event but do have some benefit for travel, vet visits, and short term situational stress.
Thunder shirts are one of my favorites! I stock every size canine at my vet clinic. In south Florida, our summertime thunderstorms can be doozies! No matter how good the meteorologists are, sometimes you just can’t prepare for a surprise storm before you head out the door for work. And yet you probably don’t wish to medicate your pet with gabapentin or trazadone unless you need to. Thunder shirts are a great option, and they can be used in conjunction with other treatments. Thunder shirts are essentially tight-fitting clothes. It’s like swaddling a baby… The pet feels like it is getting a big ole hug.
A Thunder shirt is a vest that covers the chest. You snug it to the pet’s body with the velcro attachments. We want it pretty snug but so that Fluffy can still comfortably breathe… Let’s just say you wouldn’t want your teenage daughter leaving the house in clothes this tight. Thunder shirts are for both dogs and cats, although in my experience dogs tolerate them better than our feline friends. And yet, when I fostered (now adopted) Pboo at the start of the pandemic, she wore a feline Thundershirt for 5 months. She is ancient and had never lived indoors. She is one skittish kitty. The Thundershirt and Anxitane worked like magic for her. In fact, on “laundry day” she was clearly worse so I had to get her a 2nd thundershirt so she wouldn’t be anxious when she was naked for those few hours. To this day if I have a guest she hides under the bed, but this little weirdo kitty has come a long way.
Some options don’t decrease anxiety but instead, make a pet drowsy. It’s harder to be anxious when you are sleepy. Melatonin and Benadryl and valerian root are readily available over the counter and are known to cause drowsiness. Again, these products don’t decrease anxiety! Veterinarians used to use a lot of a sedative called acepromazine (aka “ace”) for sedation for storms and fireworks, but it didn’t affect anxiety either. Ace has mostly gone out of favor in lieu of trazodone and gabapentin which do decrease anxiety.
Ok, I can’t help myself! For severe thunderstorms, Trazadone and gabapentin work great! Each can be given every 8 to12 hours and can even be used together. They reduce anxiety. For those of you who think it’s not safe to drug a pet, think of how safe it is for dogs to claw through a door jam or jump into a pool or run away from home from the fear of a storm or fireworks. Many years ago my old Labrador did all of those things during the 4th of July fireworks.
That was some night. After that, she got drugs. Of course, if the anxiety is not episodic (such as with
thunderstorms or fireworks) we might reach for a daily longer-acting medication. That’s a different topic.
We want to keep your sweetie safe and relaxed this thunderstorm season!
If your pet is anxious about coming into the vet clinic, please see our Fear Free tab on this website. We send home courtesy doses of trazodone and gabapentin to help ease periodic situational stress and anxiety.