On Facebook, I’ve been running a short series on helping our anxious or fearful dogs cope with stressful events. This post brings all of those posts together in one simple, easy guide.
What prompted the posts was the opening of the hunt season in France. Sunday mornings are often a key day and different regions also operate other days during the week where different kinds of hunting are permitted. The best place to check for these if you live in France is your local ONF (Office National des Fôrets) in your department. They usually have a guide to hunt seasons.
Suffice to say this is not a pro- or anti-hunt post. The guidance in here is as useful for people with roadworks, noisy neighbours, fireworks or storms. It’s also useful for dogs who suffer when they are left alone, who have social fears, phobias or find it difficult to cope with change.
The opening of the hunt season is going to be a shock to the system for our dogs in the countryside though, especially after 6 months of calm and the first 8 weeks of lockdown, so if you also have regular days where your dog will need to cope with a lot of noise, make sure you use it as an opportunity to do something fun AND safe. It’s a great day to stay in and do some work in the garden or in the home.
If you have a dog who is struggling to cope, there are a number of things you can try. Pet Remedy and various other diffusers such as Adaptil contain things that can help your dog calm, like valerian (Pet Remedy) and dog appeasing pheromones (like Adaptil and Feliway, also, for cats). You could also try things like Zylkene, Adaptil tablets, NutraCalm, YuCalm or Anxitane. Any number of nutraceuticals and scents or pheromones might be able to help our dogs. Remember also that they might need extra Omega oils and B vitamins to help their brain function at optimal levels. It really is very individual to the dog, but some of these should help in the short term and you can seek your vet’s advice if you need anything more.
If it is very noisy, you may find things like pressure wraps and massage also help your dog cope.
Blocking some of the noise out can also help. Playing classical music or reggae has been shown to help dogs de-stress in shelter environments, but only if used temporarily, so you might want to consider putting on some Bach or some Bob Marley at a level that won’t stress your dog out. Calming and soothing words also make a difference for some dogs, so reading the latest blockbuster to them can also reduce their stress (and yours). Make sure you also play it when there’s no noises to block out – it’s not unknown for dogs to form associations between you putting on music and then loud noises starting.
Of course, our dogs pick up on our anxiety too, so if you feel like you’re contributing to your dog’s emotions, take some time today to relax a little (in amid the gunfire!) and play YOUR favourite music at a gentle level or read a book, do some yoga, try some tai chi, get some breathing techniques to help you relax.
You can also pair up the gunshots or loud sporadic noises with food or toys. Have a little time with chews, with stuffed bones, with Kongs, with snuffle mats, with pickpockets and even a pile of laundry with a handful of treats in. Make it a pleasant and soothing experience as best you can.
Even if your dog isn’t usually sensitive, this can help.
Remember too to keep your dogs secure. Fearful dogs can take flight very easily at times when there are more noises than usual, and it’s really important you keep them safe. Keep doors and windows shut and locked. If you take them out in the garden, be vigilant and supervise them actively. Keep walks to quieter times like lunchtime or dinner time and keep your dog on the lead. If there are hunts in your area, use a long lead (3m – 10m) even if you normally let your dogs run free. Even if they aren’t nervous and they just like a chase, there’s a lot of animals being displaced from their usual places of safety and they’ll be making their way into unfamiliar territory at speed. The last thing they need is your off-lead, out-of-control spaniel joining in. The risks are very high that your dog will get injured or lost, or that they may accidentally get shot.
Remember, you can’t reinforce fear, so if your dog needs attention, they can have it. If they need safety, let them choose where they feel safe. If a trainer tells you otherwise, or expects your dog to ‘just get over it’, find a better trainer. Remember also to be safe. If your dog is cowering or fearful, frozen to the spot or even shaking, be careful of touching them or grabbing them even if you are moving them to safety – it’s a quick way to a bite.
First, we’ll look at a very common remedy that vets in France recommend: Zylkene. This is also available for cats in France too. I know I write lots about our dogs, but don’t forget noisy, busy or stressful times can be just as traumatic for cats, and you will need to think about them too.
Zylkene is a food-based supplement manufactured by Vetoquinol, a French veterinary medicine company. Its active ingredient is Alpha casozepine. This is a peptide derived from milk protein and is believed to work with GABA in the brain. GABA is associated with hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, hyperexcitability and hypervigilance. One of the first studies carried out by French veterinary behaviourist Claude Beata in 2007 showed that, alongside behaviour modification, Zylkene was as efficient as other pharmaceuticals at reducing anxiety.
Zylkene is often given as a remedy for anxiety from situational change, from new homes to car trips, new guardians, loud noises, grooming, additions to the family, storms, vet trips and hospitalisation. Because it is a food supplement, there is a very low risk of overdose, and so studies recommend vets try Zylkene before anything else. In studies (Beata et al. 2007), it has been shown to be as efficient as prescription drugs such as Seleligine (Anipryl/Selgian) and it’s always useful to try first because if it is as effective and has fewer potential side-effects, then it’s worth a try. Remember, this study showed that behaviour modification must also be part of the plan. That means doing things specifically to change behaviour, rather than just hoping a pill will function on its own.
There is little evidence to say whether Zylkene is effective in the short term or in the long term. Where studies exist and have shown a reduction in anxiety, they have been medium- to long-term studies. You may need to think about Zylkene doses daily over at least a six to eight-week period. It may work best with dogs who have other signs of hyper-reactive behaviours in general. For instance, it works best with Flika, my ancient hyperactive old malinois, but not with Lidy, who is mostly (contrary to popular belief!) fairly laid back unless her environment changes. It’s worth having a conversation with your vet about dosage if you don’t see a change in your dog’s behaviour before moving on to prescription pharmaceuticals. Remember, you can also safely use Zylkene as part of a layered package of remedies, though you will need to check with a vet before starting.
Before you start, it is a very good idea to get an idea of your dog’s behaviour by making a chart. It can be very difficult to tell if any change is being made, and why that change is. For instance, I noted a 10 minute period, filming it and counting how many times Flika got up and lay down again, how many times she paced, and how fast. Then it was easy to see that this changed at another period when she had taken Zylkene, and then to see the effects again without. Because the change was relatively small – she barked less, panted less, paced less and moved less, but around a 15% reduction in each – it’s easy to think that it might not be working, when in fact there had been some abatement in activity.
Despite its popularity, there are actually very few studies about Zylkene, so don’t feel disheartened if it does not give you the results you were expecting. Studies have also included behaviour modification or other dietary supplements, so it’s hard to say for sure what the effect is. The studies that do exist have design flaws that make it difficult to know exactly what was making a difference, so we still have a lot to learn about this over-the-counter remedy.
1. Beata, C. et al. (2007) Effects of alpha-casozepine (Zylkene) versus selegiline hydrochloride (Selgian, Anipryl) on anxiety disorders in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research, 2 (5), pp. 175-183
2. Buckley, L. A. (2017) Is Alpha-casozepine Efficacious at Reducing Anxiety in Dogs? Veterinary Evidence, 2 (3).
3. Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. eds. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.
3. Kato, M. et al. (2012) Effects of prescription diet on dealing with stressful situations and performance of anxiety-related behaviors in privately owned anxious dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7 (1), pp. 21-26
4. Palestrini, C. et al (2010) Efficacy of a diet containing caseinate hydrolysate on signs of stress in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 5 (6), pp. 309-317
Adaptil collars and diffusers
Adaptil is made by Ceva, another French company, this time based in Libourne. Their global products include many household names for veterinary treatment, including Selgian, which may also be used for some similar abnormal behaviours in dogs.
Adaptil is an over-the-counter plug-in or collar. The plug-in is useful if your dog is in one place when they are anxious or fearful, such as in the home, where a collar like Lidy’s can be more useful on the move. Remember, just like pills, dogs can’t choose to get away from the collar, so the plug-in might be your first stop. Then, if the dog finds it offensive, they can move away.
Adaptil, like its sister product Feliway for cats, is a pheromone-based product. The principle by which it works is to release artificial odours that replicate those of a mother dog. It can be a useful addition for when puppies move to their home and Ceva recommend it for puppies who are struggling to be left alone during the night, to prevent separation-related distress and also to help them cope with loud noises. It may also have a use in puppy socialisation classes. Veterinary behaviourist and researcher Daniel Mills, and his group at the University of Lincoln, have done some studies into the efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) products, as have French veterinary behaviourists Emmanuel Gaultier and Patrick Pageat. Mills et al. (2006) shows that DAP products worked to relieve distress in a veterinary clinic setting. Sheppard and Mills (2003) also showed that DAP products could be effective in helping dogs cope with fireworks. Landsberg et al. 2015) showed that DAP collars could be useful in reducing anxious and fearful behaviour during thunderstorms. Dogs were less anxious and chose to hide more rather than freezing during storms when wearing a DAP collar than when they were not. This perhaps shows that they may be better able to cope and make good choices during noisy events.
However, like Zylkene, not all studies are published, and there have been questions over the efficacy of Adaptil. Some trials have shown that DAP is as effective as prescription pharmaceuticals (Gaultier et al. 2005; Gaultier et al. 2008). Again, it’s another product to test and see whether it makes a difference. It really does seem to be very much about the individual dog.
For Lidy, it reduces her night-time pacing significantly and also her pacing during gunfire in the hunting season. It also helps her cope with storms. The best test for me is the change in her behaviour that I noticed when the collars were coming to the end of their life-span and her pacing and distress vocalisation would increase once more.
Like Zylkene, it may be that Adaptil is best in use with other products and because it is a very low risk product, it’s worth trying and layering in with other things. Adaptil also make a tablet, which is discussed below.
When talking about risk, it’s really important for people whose dogs have distress behaviours around doors or dogs who jump that you choose the plug-in rather than the collar, since dogs can easily and quickly hang themselves. This collar is of no more risk than any other collar, but it’s something to bear in mind if your dog jumps up at door handles or has a risk of catching themselves on it. Since it may be used outside the home for reducing kennelling distress, distress during veterinary visits, car journeys, separation, fireworks and gunshot, it’s worthwhile remembering that panicking dogs must be safe too.
Landsberg et al (2015) recommend arranging the environment to minimise exposure to noises, such as keeping dogs inside. Playing music would be another way to minimise noise exposure in the home as long as the dog accepts it and is not further stressed. They also highlight the role we play in our dogs’ anxieties – not that dogs’ fears, anxieties or phobias can be “reinforced” by us, but that our own behaviour impacts on the dog’s level of stress. So taking some calming breaths, reading a good book aloud, sticking on a bit of Handel and trying an Adaptil plug-in or collar might be a great combination for some dogs.
Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Bougrat, L. et al (2005) Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. The Veterinary Record 156, pp. 533–538
Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Vienet-Legue, D. et al (2008) Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone in reducing stress associated with social isolation in newly adopted puppies. The Veterinary Record 163, pp. 73–80
Landsberg, G. M., Beck, A., Lopez, A. et al (2015) Dog-appeasing pheromone collars reduce sound-induced fear and anxiety in beagle dogs: a placebo-controlled study. Veterinary Record.
Mills DS, Ramos D, Gandia Estelles M et al (2006) A triple blind
placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behavior on problem dogs in the veterinary clinic. Appl Anim Behav Sci
Sheppard G, Mills DS (2003) Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks. Vet Rec 152:432–436
Anxitane / L-theanine
Anxitane is produced by another French company, Virbac. It’s not a particular surprise to anyone who regularly visits a French pharmacy to know that the French are ever so slightly obsessed with herbal remedies and with nutraceuticals. Parapharmacies are filled with a number of products for all manner of mental and physical complaints.
Anxitane is their only product aimed at canine behaviour, although they also make an anti-stress product for cats. The active ingredient in Anxitane is L-theanine, derived from tea. L-theanine is an amino acid and has been shown in randomised control trials in humans to reduce heart rate and symptoms of anxiety without causing drowsiness. It’s also been demonstrated to improve focus. L-theanine is also found in products like Solliquin. You’ll also see L-theanine frequently as an ingredient in blended products.
You always knew a cup of tea was the solution to all life’s woes – this just works on the same principle.
So far, studies about the efficacy of L-theanine have been small, with usually under 20 dogs. Other studies have been funded by the manufacturers themselves or behaviours have been owner-reported rather than videoed and coded externally. The role of bias and placebo effects can’t therefore be ruled out. In general, the studies on L-theanine have been less robust than those for Zylkene and for Adaptil. That is not to say it is inefficient or does not work. As we know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. One trial explored the effects of L-theanine in conjunction with behaviour therapy versus the effects of therapy alone (Michelazzi et al. 2015) and took cortisol readings during the trial. They noted a reduction in stereotypical stress behaviours and phobic behaviours. L-theanine is believed to work with GABA and glutamate at a neural level. All three – Zylkene, Adaptil and Anxitane – are manufactured products meaning their active ingredients are tested and assured, as opposed to other products which are not, and are very much more ‘hit and miss’ in terms of quality and levels of active ingredients. Like the other products, branded L-theanine has also fewer risks in overdose than other pharmalogical products, and so it is an option that many caregivers may wish to consider before trialling pharmaceuticals, in discussion with your vet.
Araujo, J.A., de Rivera, C., Ethier, J.L., et al. (2010) ANXITANE tablets reduce fear of human beings in a laboratory model of anxiety-related disorders. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 5, pp.268-275.
Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R. et al. (2007) L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology 74 pp. 39-45
Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G.V., Minero, M. et al (2009) Effectiveness of L-theanine and behavioral therapy in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 5 pp. 34-35
Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G. V., Talamonti, Z. et al (2015) Efficacy of L-Theanine in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs: preliminary results. Veterinaria 29(2)
So far, we’ve looked at products with a single ingredient. Now, we look at blends of ingredients in over-the-counter tablets that might help out your anxious dog if they’re in need of a boost.
We start by looking at a UK product. Sadly, this isn’t available easily outside of the UK, but it’s interesting to consider the ingredients and their use. Nutracalm is a product from Nutravet. They manufacture nutraceuticals to supply as over-the-counter remedies for dogs, cats and horses.
Nutracalm contains an ingredient we looked at yesterday, L-theanine, which is the active ingredient in Anxitane. It also contains L–tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in the production of serotonin and melatonin, as well as in the way B vitamins are absorbed – essential for healthy brain function. Whilst chemists are not sure exactly how modern antidepressants work, many stop serotonin being reabsorbed and recycled in the brain, meaning there is more of it floating about helping us feel calmer and less anxious. Tryptophan is usually available through diet, and you can find specialist diets aimed at boosting serotonin in dogs.
With all changes that we make to our dogs, I would advise a degree of caution, so run any changes by your vet first, especially if your dog is on medication, if they have heart, liver or kidney problems, or if they are prone to gastrointestinal problems. What we do to our bodies is not without consequence, but many of the consequences only show up many weeks or months later.
Nutracalm also contains GABA, working on the same systems as L-theanine and alpha casozepine. GABA levels help regulate activity levels and also contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. It helps dogs in particular who are showing nervous or anxious behaviours. Benzodiazepine drugs work on GABA pathways, and so supplementing with GABA may lead to anti-anxiety effects, just without the side-effects and drowsiness associated with these prescription pharmaceuticals.
The final two active ingredients in Nutracalm are passionflower extract and B vitamins. B vitamins are essential for the function of the brain, and passionflower has a long history in herbal medicine as having a calming effect.
In theory, then, Nutracalm has something to boost dopamine and give us back an interest in life, something to boost tryptophan and serotonin, GABA which is involved in management of anxiety, and a couple of added extras in passionflower and B vitamins. Unlike Zylkene or Anxitane, which only have one active ingredient, this has five.
Other supplements such as YuCalm, manufactured by YuMove who are part of the UK-based Lintbells family, also contain their own blends. YuCalm is available in France and for those of us with dogs with arthritis, we may already be familiar with YuMove. YuCalm is also a blended product. It contains L-theanine, lemon balm and fish protein hydrolysate. Not unlike Zylkene which also contains a hydrolysate from cow’s milk, YuCalm is working in the same way. Landsberg et al (2015) demonstrated that fish protein hydrolysates had some efficacy in reducing anxious reactions in dogs. Adaptil tablets also contain a blend of GABA, L-tryptophan, L-theanine and B vitamins, not unlike NutraCalm, so you can find lots of products on the market that work with blends. Since all the blends are proprietary, there will be variations, and just because one does not work, it does not mean the others will not. Other products like CaniRelax also contain lemon balm, passionflower and eschscholtzia extract that also may have a calming effect. CaniZen contains valerian, passionflower, eschscholtzia extract, brewer’s yeast and minerals. Ananxvia and Animigo Calming Aid are two others. These last four French products contain herbal extracts, sometimes with additional minerals or vitamins, to help boost a dog’s natural emotional resilience.
You’ll find then a number of blended products on the market, containing various proprietary blends of L-tryptophan, L-theanine, GABA, passionflower, fish protein hydrolysate, lemonbalm, brewers yeast, B vitamins, valerian, essential minerals and eschscholtzia. These are less well-trialled than the products mentioned earlier, but at the same time, it would also be difficult to isolate the effects resulting from each individual product.
Still, these products have all been demonstrated in some trials, be they on humans or on other animals, to have some calming effects, and so lack of trialling shouldn’t stop you from picking up a couple to try out. NutraCalm, YuCalm and Adaptil tablets would be my starting point, perhaps even adding in one or two other products to layer them. Of course, they do start to become really expensive then, and so it’s worthwhile doing a quick check to make sure what’s making a difference. For instance, I like to try 7 days on and 7 days off, then 7 days back on again, making a note of anxious reactions during that time with a simple tally. If I can’t see much of a difference, I’ll probably try a different tack. Although it certainly won’t hurt dogs to have supplements and nutraceuticals, there’s no point giving them a very expensive cocktail of products if it’s making minimal difference to their quality of life.
Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.
I confess I have a healthy (?!) skepticism about herbal remedies. I know a good few millionnaires who got rich off selling diet pills, herbal remedies and CBD oil from their spare bedroom, and whose sales pages are littered with negative reviews that don’t seem to stop the money rolling in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am too knowledgeable about the profit to be made from untested, ineffective and poor-quality remedies to be able to endorse them wholeheartedly.
At the same time, I know there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in my philosophy, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Ayurvedic medicine, indigenous medicines, eastern approaches to healing and even our own “old wives’ tales” often prove to have something to them. Take willow and foxglove as two very simple examples. Aspirin and Digoxin are just two examples of how the so-called myths and ‘woo-woo’ medicine found a place in Western drugs markets.
So there’s that.
And with those two provisos out of the way, we’re going to take a quick look at some herbal remedies that might just be able to help your dog cope during stressful events. As with everything, run things by your vet first. Some products, like St John’s Wort, are contraindicated with other medications.
Gingko Biloba is the first product we’ll look at. One study, Reichling et al (2006) showed a reduction in anxiety related to geriatric conditions, activating GABA and reducing anxiety in generalised anxiety disorders.
St John’s Wort has a long history of use with mild depression and anxiety, and this is also a herbal supplement you might wish to try if your dog is otherwise generally depressed or not enjoying life very much. If you’ve noticed dips in your dog’s curiosity or interest, their engagement in the world, St John’s Wort is believed to function in similar ways to modern antidepressant drugs. In fact, sometimes St John’s Wort is contraindicated in use with such products, so definitely one to run by your vet before trialling (Sarris et al. 2009)
Valerian is another herbal remedy that may also reduce the effects of stress. It’s one I trialled with Heston here when it was clear his epilepsy was linked to stress. As with all herbal remedies, it is worth doing a really thorough investigation of behaviours over a period, withdrawing the treatment and then doing the same analysis before reinstating it. That way, you can measure the effects of any herbal remedies on behaviour in a slightly more rigorous way than just a general impression.
Products such as Pet Remedy have been put through some small clinical trials and include extracts of valerian among other herbal extracts. Now Pet Remedy is one I keep on board for personal use, and I use both the spray (on myself) and the diffuser. Lidy is certainly much more relaxed during stressful events when the Pet Remedy diffuser is plugged in.
I also use it as a kind of talisman scent, by which I mean that I use it to anchor anxious dogs, by pairing it up with calm times over a period of weeks, and then gradually transferring the scent to more challenging or difficult events. I was thinking this morning of how much the various perfumes and aftershaves of my paternal grandparents was a smell that could calm me, how the smell of coconut suncream immediately relaxes me and how the smell of ripe damsons transports me right back to a place in my childhood on my maternal family’s smallholding. Smell is such a powerful, powerful tool to evoke feelings that if we use it right and we pair it up carefully, over a long period of time, it is bound to be much more salient to dogs with their supersized olfactory bulbs. I know we need to use it carefully because essential oils are a bit of a punch in the nose for dogs, and I know myself that too strong odours can be really headache-inducing, but if supermarkets can make us buy more by wafting the smell of bread, and estate agents can sell more houses by roasting coffee beans in the kitchen during viewings, then I don’t think we should overlook this very powerful tool with our dogs. Ultimately, as long as we offer our dogs the choice when using odour, and we know they can move away if they want, then it’s definitely worth a trial. It’s much less invasive or intrusive to start with smell than it is to start with giving the dog something to ingest, and so these can be the gentlest approaches. But just because they’re gentle doesn’t mean they’re not effective. If you know a smell that can transport you instantly into calmness and a feeling of safety, then you know just how powerful this might be with dogs whose sense of smell is so much better than ours.
Reichling, J., Frater-Schröder, M., Herzog, K. et al (2006) Reduction of behavioral disturbances in elderly dogs supplemented with astandardized Ginkgo leaf extract. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd 148(5) pp.257–263
Sarris, J. and Kavanagh, D.J. (2009) Kava and St. John’s Wort: current evidence for use in mood and anxiety disorders. J Altern Complement Med 15(8) pp. 827–836