Being the owners of an anxious dog presents unique challenges. It can be distressing, can’t it? Watching your dog pace up and down, trying to hide under the bed, or even howling as you leave for work.
Many dog owners don’t like the idea of prescription drugs and their possible side effects. So the search for efficient and more natural alternatives has driven a growing market in anxiety supplements for dogs. But, do natural alternatives work? Are they suitable for all dogs, can I give my dog valerian, and is it safe?
Whether it’s fireworks, vets, separation anxiety, or thunderstorms, trying to comfort a distressed dog is tough. So it’s not surprising that the demand for calming aids to help our dogs with stress and anxiety is on the increase.
What is valerian root?
Valerian root has a long history as a herb that helps both relax and calm the nervous system. In fact, valerian is a non-toxic herb that is often found in calming supplements for dogs. But is it beneficial for our fearful canines?
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a flowering herb native to Europe and Asia with a distinct and somewhat unpleasant smell. Although the flowers can be used in remedies, it’s the root of the plant that is most often dried and used for medicinal purposes.
Classed as a nervine, valerian has a calming effect on the nervous system and strengthens and tones it. Available in powder, capsule, and tincture supplement forms, it’s found in many over-the-counter calming remedies designed for anxious dogs.
What you should know about herbal medicine
It’s tempting to think that because herbal medicines are ‘natural,’ they are automatically safe for our dogs. However, just like conventional medicines, herbal remedies affect the natural balance of our dog’s bodies. As such, they are potentially harmful if they are not used correctly.
While valerian has very few side effects, it’s also what herbalists refer to as a ‘hot’ herb. Although it may seem odd to think of herbs as hot or cold, it’s an important consideration when using any herb to treat a dog.
As valerian is a warming herb, it can negatively affect itchy dogs, dogs that suffer from hot spots, or are generally ‘hot’ tempered. To counter the warming effects of valerian, many dog-specific supplements also include ‘cool’ herbs to balance them out.
Despite valerian’s popularity, no single herb will work efficiently on all dogs. So when considering whether to give your dog herbal alternatives to conventional medicines, it’s always worth discussing the options with your veterinarian or herbalist.
Why should I use valerian? The benefits
Valerian has minimal side effects and has been used for centuries for its mild sedative and calming effects. While studies are few and far between as to its efficacy, valerian root has a long history of being used to help treat the following issues;
- Fears, including storms, fireworks, other dogs, and strangers
- Chronic fatigue
Although it’s not known exactly how valerian works, it is thought that the compounds within the root act s a sedative on the central nervous system.
Reasons not to use valerian
Despite valerian root being a relatively safe herb to use, there are some instances where it’s best to stay clear of it.
Valerian can interfere with some other medications and supplements. So if your dog is already receiving treatment of any kind, don’t introduce valerian into your dog’s diet unless you check with your vet that it’s safe to do so.
It’s also best to steer clear of valerian if your dog is pregnant or nursing. It’s currently unknown if the herb negatively affects unborn puppies. Young dogs under six months old, very old dogs, and dogs with existing liver conditions should not be given valerian. If in any doubt of whether valerian is appropriate for your dog, do have a chat with your vet.
Side effects of valerian
While valerian is considered a safe herb to give your dog, there are possible side effects just with any other medicine. So if your dog shows any of the following signs, discontinue the supplements immediately;
- Dark urine
- Excessive drowsiness
Also, in large doses, valerian could cause an upset stomach and low blood pressure. So always use as directed by your dog’s health care professional.
While you can use tinctures, powders, or supplements, it’s always better to get medical advice or use dog-specific supplements. But as a general rule dosage for powdered valerian root is approximately four milligrams for every pound of weight.
Alternatively, the appropriate dosage can also be worked out by taking your dog’s weight and dividing it by one hundred and fifty pounds (the average weight of an adult). So for a thirty-pound dog, it would equate to twenty percent of an adult’s supplement dosage.
Therefore if an adult dose is two supplements three times a day, the appropriate dosage for a thirty-pound dog would be twenty percent of six capsules or one point two capsules a day. As with anything new, introduce it gradually so that your dog can get used to it and minimize any possible reactions.
Many of the supplements will have a mixture of ingredients, including other calming herbs. If a supplement is not dog-specific, check the ingredient list carefully. Some substances used in human supplementation, like xylitol, are highly toxic to dogs.
Can I give my dog valerian?
No herb works for every dog or every situation. Every dog is individual, and while valerian may work for one dog with separation anxiety, it may not work for another dog with a fear of storms.
Although valerian root is non-toxic to dogs, there are situations where it is contraindicated and should be avoided. These include dogs already taking medications and supplements and dogs with existing liver conditions. While it can be tempting to try almost anything when your dog is experiencing distress, their safety is paramount. Just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean that it can be taken without possible side effects.
So always consult with your dog’s veterinarian or health care professional before giving any supplements to your dog.