Can Herbs Improve Your Pet's Behavior?

The use of herbs and other alternative remedies for the treatment of a wide range of human illnesses has rapidly gained popularity over the past two decades. Herbal remedies are especially popular among patients with chronic diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and gastrointestinal ailments. Also, some herbal treatments appear to be beneficial for treatment of psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety and insomnia. It is logical to think that if an herb or botanical preparation can help a human with a psychiatric disorder, then it might also help a pet with a behavioral problem.

Before going into specifics on what is known about improving animal behavior problems with natural herbal remedies, a word of caution is in order. Clearly, the increasing popularity of alternative remedies is partially due to the fact that some of these products work well. Unfortunately, much of the increased use of alternative therapies is due to hype and propaganda from companies that manufacture and sell such treatments. To separate fact from fiction, it is important to rely on information from objective, reliable sources like the scientific and medical literature rather than from dietary supplement websites and promotional pamphlets.

There seems to be an increasing number of false claims for products labeled "homoeopathic," which really just means that the "active ingredient" is so dilute as to be almost undetectable. There is little or no scientific evidence that these dilute formulations work. Therefore, the comments that follow are limited to herbs known to have beneficial effects when used in doses that are meaningful.

As always, it is a good idea to consult your veterinarian before beginning a new course of treatment for your pet. Following are some indications for use of herbal remedies:

  • Barking. Perhaps the best-known herbal remedy for dogs is the use of a lemon or citronella scented aerosol in a collar to control nuisance barking. Although commercial collars of this design are expensive, there is substantial evidence that this can be an effective behavior-modification tool for many dogs.
  • Anxiety. Valerian has been tested in humans with some success in the treatment of anxiety and sleeplessness. This herb is available in most health-food stores and in many groceries and pharmacies. Valerian can be useful to control a variety of anxiety-related or fear-induced problems such as restless during car travel, fear of thunder, and anxiety while left alone.
  • Forgetfulness & Senility. Another example of an herb that might have a useful role in pet health is Ginkgo. This herb is being tested for the improvement of memory and concentration in people with Alzheimer's disease. Ginkgo may be helpful in dogs with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome or in older cats with random and excessive vocalization.
  • Others. Although most reports of the use of herbs are related to human conditions, there are increasing numbers of practitioners interested in their veterinary applications. For example, small studies are looking at the use of Chamomile to treat irritability in dogs and cats, and Cantharis and Staphisagria to reduce cat spraying.
But, Watch Out! Of course it is important to be cautious in the use of any new treatment, and this caution is especially important in the use of herbs, which are not always reliably packaged and labeled. Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe. Think of the natural poison, arsenic, for example. A very common herb, St. John's wort, can cause sensitivity to sunburn in both people and animals. Several dogs have died from being given excessive doses of an over-the-counter dietary supplement called 5HT (5 hydroxytryptophan - sometimes known as Griffonia seed extract). So, be skeptical of unproven claims, and gather reliable information.

Rob Lester

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