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There are many products marketed to reduce fear and anxiety and provide generalized calming effects in dogs, and you may find the array of options dizzying.
While some pet parents swear by certain dog calming products and report them to be useful in dogs with mild to moderate anxiety, few products have been tested and proven through scientific research to reduce anxiety in pets. When scientific studies have been performed, many of these studies are of lower rigor.
If you elect to use one or more of these products, keep in mind that the placebo effect may lead pet parents to perceive benefits in treatments that in reality are ineffective. This could delay treatments that actually work.
Here are the facts about some popular dog calming products that can help ease your dog’s anxiety.
Studies on Dog Calming Products
When you read about research on a certain dog calming product, know that some studies may have been performed on the functional ingredient in a product, not on the product itself. Also, the studies may have been performed on rats and mice, not on dogs and cats.
While the amount of scientific information on non-pharmaceutical calming products in dogs is increasing, there isn’t much data on the quality, safety, and efficacy for the majority of products.
Another thing to note is that unlike the US Food and Drug Administration’s testing of supplements for people, there’s no standardized monitoring system for pet behavioral supplements. This can lead to differences in ingredients, purity, quality, and efficacy between manufacturers and between batches.
This is why it is important to discuss with your veterinarian starting any supplement, even if you can buy it over the counter, before giving it to your pet.
Common Ingredients in Behavioral Supplements for Dog Anxiety
Behavioral supplements may include calming treats, herbal supplements, dietary supplements, and calming diets. Here are some of the common ingredients found in these products, along with scientific research on whether they reduce anxiety in dogs.
Alpha-casozepine is a lactose-free derivative of a protein in cows’ milk. Some research studies have suggested that this derivative helps reduce anxiety in dogs by acting on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that produces a calming effect.
Alpha-casozepine has been shown to potentially reduce anxiety and fear of strangers in dogs.
But although it is sometimes administered for situational stress, such as during fireworks or vet visits, there is no evidence that it has any short-term effect.
Where to find it:
Alpha-casozepine is found in Zylkene (Vetoquinol) and is one of the main ingredients in some veterinary calming diets. Zylkene comes in capsules that can be given whole or opened and mixed with your dog’s food.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland of the brain. It’s secreted in high levels during the night and low levels during the day. Thus, it plays an important role in regulating the body’s natural wake/sleep cycle (circadian rhythm).
There is some evidence in humans that melatonin may help reduce anxiety and promote sedation before medical procedures. Side effects in humans can include sleepiness, headaches, and gastrointestinal upset.
Melatonin supplements have been used to reduce situational fear and anxiety and dogs, such as during veterinary visits, thunderstorms, and fireworks, as well as to promote sleep in dogs who are restless overnight. However, scientific evidence is lacking.
Where to find it:
It comes in tablet and capsule formulations, as well as dissolvable and/or flavored chewables. Make sure that any melatonin product does not contain xylitol, a class of sweetener that is highly toxic dogs. Melatonin appears safe to combine with other medications or supplements.
L-theanine is an amino acid derived from the tea plant. It is thought to help decrease anxiety and improve mental function by modulating GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, and by inhibiting glutamate, which is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain.
There have been several veterinary studies that showed L-theanine to have benefits in dogs, including reducing fear of strangers, noise phobia, and storm phobia.
Where to find it:
L-theanine can be found in Solliquin (Nutramax) chews, Composure (Vetriscience) chews, and Anxitane (Virbac) tablets. Supplements containing L-theanine are intended to be used on a daily basis and may require 4-6 weeks to have therapeutic effect.
L-tryptophan is an amino acid precursor for the formation of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is key to the regulation of many behavioral processes, including emotion, mood, aggression, and anxiety. Studies have suggested that there may be an association between the metabolism of L-tryptophan and fear in dogs.
Where to find it:
L-tryptophan has been added to some veterinary calming diets. One research study showed that one of these diets (which also contains alpha-casozepine) helped dogs to better cope with stress, while another study showed no effect on the dogs’ anxiety levels.
Valerian is a plant that may help pets sleep through the night and may ease anxiety. However, controlled research studies are not available.
Where to find it:
One study found that pet parents reported that the Pet Remedy diffuser, which contains valerian, reduced the intensity, but not the frequency, of anxiety-related behaviors. As with some other products, it may take several weeks before pet parents can see any therapeutic effect.
Magnolia Officinalis and Phellodendron Amurense
Magnolia officinalis is a flowering herb that has been shown to have an anti-anxiety affect in mice, and Phellodendron amurense is a bark extract that has been shown to protect the brain from the effects of stress and prevent mood disorders. Studies have shown both magnolia and phellodendron to reduce fear-related signs during thunderstorms.
Where to find it:
Solliquin (Nutramax) chews contain a combination of magnolia and phellodendron extracts.
The gut microbiome, which consists of diverse populations of intestinal bacteria, has been associated with several behavioral problems in dogs, including fear and anxiety-related disorders.
According to a blinded, placebo-controlled study conducted at the Purina Pet Care Center, the probiotic Bifidobacterium longum BL999 reduced anxious behaviors such as excessive vocalization, jumping, pacing, and spinning in a small population of Labrador Retrievers.
Where to find it:
You can find Bifidobacterium longum BL999 in Purina Pro Plan Calming Care. It comes in individual packets of flavorful powder that is mixed daily with your dog’s food. It can take up to 6 weeks to take effect.
Pheromones are chemicals that are detected by a special organ in dogs, the vomeronasal organ. Pheromones affect parts of the brain that lead to changes in behavioral and emotional responses. When female dogs nurse their puppies, they release dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) from their mammary glands. This has a calming effect on the puppies.
The effectiveness of DAP in reducing fear and anxiety in dogs is supported by quite a bit of scientific evidence. Research studies suggest that DAP may help reduce anxiety in numerous situations: changes in the household, car travel, boarding, veterinary visits, moving to a new home, when a new puppy is introduced to the home, in cases of separation-related disorders, and noise phobias, including thunderstorms and fireworks.
However, many of these studies are limited by their methodological quality. Furthermore, in some of these studies, other treatments, such as behavior modification, were also implemented at the same time as DAP. This does not mean that potential benefits of pheromone therapy should be discounted, but further research is necessary to better understand the potential benefits of DAP.
Where to find it:
Synthetic DAP is sold in collars, sprays, or diffusers. Pheromones are species-specific; in other words, the pheromones of one species will only affect other members of that species. The same is true for synthetic pheromones.
Adaptil (Ceva) spray can be applied to a crate or kennel or sprayed in a vehicle. The spray contains an alcohol base with an odor that dogs may not like, so spray it and wait at least 15 minutes before exposing your dog to that space, so the odor can dissipate. The effects last about 4-5 hours.
Adaptil plug-in diffusers aerosolize the pheromone up to 700 square feet, and the Adaptil collar and Sentry’s Calming Collar evaporate the pheromone. Both the diffusers and collars last for about 30 days.
Dog Anxiety Vests
Pressure vests or jackets for dogs are fitted to use pressure points to ease fear or phobias, such as during thunderstorms or fireworks. They are like a hug for dogs.
Like many other calming products, scientific research on the efficacy of these products is limited and inconclusive. A couple of studies found potential benefits of pressure vests for thunderstorm phobias and for separation anxiety in dogs, but the studies were of variable quality.
Subjectively, many of the pet parents in these studies believed that the pressure vests had positive effects on their dog’s anxiety levels.
These products may have small but beneficial effects on canine anxiety and are probably worth trying. For some pets, wearing an anxiety vest may actually be fear-provoking or discomforting, so do not force your dog to wear a product if they seem uncomfortable.
Pressure vests are meant to fit snugly but to not be restrictive. For proper fit, see that you can slip two fingers with ease underneath the vests. Pets should never be left unsupervised while wearing a vest, jacket, or cape.
Dog Anxiety Vests to Try
One dog anxiety vest that is popular with pet parents, according to some reviews, is ThunderShirt, which comes in a variety of sizes.
Food and Puzzle Toys
Food toys and puzzles can distract dogs from stressful events and promote soothing alternative behaviors, such as foraging and licking. In other words, they can give dogs something else to do besides worry!
Food toys are most effective when a dog’s triggers for anxiety can be identified, such as thunderstorms, fireworks, or visitors coming into the home. A food toy is best given in a safe space that is quiet and away from the stressor. You can give it to your dog just before the onset of stressful events, to divert their attention from the trigger and prevent their anxiety from escalating.
If you repeatedly pair something positive, like a food toy, with something negative, like a stressor, your dog will be more likely to form positive associations with their triggers over time. However, if a dog’s anxiety is too high, then they may not be interested in food.
Food and Puzzle Toys to Try
There are a multitude of food toys and puzzles available. Look for products that take 15 minutes or more for dogs to finish or solve, and that are not so difficult that they might cause frustration. Here are some good options:
Snuffle mats (a mat with spaces to hide food and treats to encourage sniffing and foraging behaviors)
Freezing the food in these products will make them last longer. Stash several food toys in the freezer so you are prepared before predictable stressful events, like fireworks or storms.
For puppies, a stuffed toy with a heartbeat and heat pack may provide calming effects when the pet is left alone.
Make a Plan With Your Vet to Manage Your Dog’s Anxiety
Discuss treatment options with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. This helps ensure that you choose products that are safe and effective for your pet.
Veterinarians will also evaluate your pet for a potential physical problem that may be causing or contributing to their anxiety. Calming products almost certainly will not help if an underlying medical disorder is present.
Featured image: iStock.com/kozorog
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