Ask a Vet: Natural Ways to Calm Pets with Anxiety
With bonfire night just around the corner, many animal lovers will be considering what options are available to help our anxious pets cope with loud noises and added stresses.
As a recent RSPCA survey revealed that two-thirds (63%) of owners reported that their pets were distressed during fireworks, we asked our Consultant Vet, Dr Nick Thompson BSc (Vet Sci) Hons, BVM&S, VetMFHom, MRCVS for his tips on keeping your dogs calm, safe and happy.
Why are dogs anxious?
Dogs, like humans, can experience anxiety for a variety of reasons. These can range from fear of loud noises, for example, fireworks parties or unfamiliar environments, to separation anxiety when left alone.
Anxiety in dogs can manifest in various ways, including excessive barking, destructive behaviour, or even health issues such as diarrhoea, over-grooming or loss of appetite. Understanding the root cause of your dog's anxiety is the first step towards addressing it.
Natural calming remedies for dogs
Planning ahead can help our animals better cope with the fireworks season and here are some things you can try.
- Supplements: One of the things to consider after consulting the vet and a behaviourist are supplements, such as marine oils, high omega-3 fatty acids, and CBD oil can be beneficial.
- Herba: Herbs represent an entire toolbox of interventions for anxious dogs. We use them frequently in the practice. Passiflora, for example, is a wonderfully relaxing herb. It is an unusual and beautiful flower and has excellent calming qualities. Chamomile, the herb called 'the mother of the gut', is often used to soothe digestive upsets. But it has been used historically as a gentle tranquilliser. Valerian is a more potent sedative. Traditionally, Valerian root is used as a tincture taken internally or placed into the pillows of people and pets seeking better sleep and relaxation. (all three of these ingredients are included in our Verm-X Organic Dog Food Topper: Calming Blend.)
- Diet: Nutrition is pivotal in your dog's overall health and mental well-being. A balanced diet with high-quality ingredients is essential. Many commercial pet foods contain excessive grain carbohydrates, fillers and additives that can impact behaviour. Consider exploring a raw food diet, as it aligns with the natural, species-appropriate feeding philosophy.
- Maintain a Consistent Routine: Dogs thrive on routine. Knowing what to expect daily provides them with a sense of security. Ensure regular feeding times (although variable feeding times can also be useful in some dogs), exercise, and playtime so your dog knows what to anticipate.
- Regular Exercise: Exercise is essential for your dog's physical health and significantly affects their mental well-being. Regular walks and playtime help release excess energy and reduce anxiety.
- Mental Stimulation: Dogs are intelligent creatures, and mental stimulation is just as crucial as physical exercise. Puzzle toys, interactive games and obedience training can help keep their minds active and engaged.
- Canine Massage or Canine Bowen Technique: Just like humans, dogs can benefit from the relaxing effects of a gentle massage. This can help reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation. Consult a professional dog masseuse or Bowen practitioner if you're unsure about the proper techniques.
- Enrichment Activities: Providing your dog with interactive toys and puzzles can keep them engaged and alleviate boredom. This not only prevents anxiety but also enriches their lives.
Calming aids for dogs
In addition to the tips mentioned above, some specific calming aids and techniques can make a considerable difference in soothing your anxious dog.
- Music: Music (such as the Classic FM Playlist) has a profound impact on the emotional state of dogs. Studies have shown that classical or specially composed pet-calming music can reduce stress and anxiety in dogs. Playing soothing tunes can create a serene atmosphere for your furry friend. Firework recordings are available to help desensitise pets who react badly to bangs and fizzes outside. They are played very quietly initially for a short time. Volume and duration can gradually increase as the pet becomes familiar with the firework noises.
- Aromatherapy: Certain scents, such as lavender and Roman chamomile, are known for their calming properties. Aromatherapy can be introduced through diffusers or diluted essential oils applied to your dog's bedding. Be cautious with essential oils, as some can be toxic to pets, and always consult with your vet.
- Thundershirt: A Thundershirt is a snug-fitting garment designed to provide constant, gentle pressure to your dog's body. This pressure is believed to have a calming effect, similar to swaddling a baby. It can be particularly effective during thunderstorms or fireworks displays.
- Behavioural Training: Techniques like desensitisation and counter-conditioning can help your dog cope with specific anxiety triggers, such as separation anxiety. A professional dog trainer or behaviourist can assist with these methods.
- Calming Wraps: The wraps provide gentle pressure, similar to Thundershirts.
- Pheromone Sprays: Pheromone sprays mimic the natural calming scents produced by mother dogs. They come as sprays or plug-ins and are easy to use.
Remember that every dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Exploring different strategies and observing what works best for your specific dog is critical.
Consulting a veterinarian or a professional dog behaviourist is always prudent if your dog's anxiety is severe or persistent. After all, as a veterinary surgeon, ensuring the health and welfare of our beloved pets is our highest goal.
Additional resources for bonfire night
It's not only our dogs who find fireworks stressful, so here are some useful links with advice for helping other animals cope.
Advice for cats who are afraid of fireworks:
- Provide hiding places in your home - under furniture, a quiet corner or in a crate.
- Leave them until they're ready.
- Keeping cats indoors to avoid them becoming stressed.
- Microchip your cats in case they're startled and escape outside.
Fireworks can scare horses, who will generally try to escape a stressful or scary situation, such as firework.
- Be prepared and check to see if there are going to be any firework displays in your area.
- Desensitise your horse by playing increasingly louder noises.
- Reach out to the organisers and explain there are horses nearby and ask them to set off their fireworks in the opposite direction.
- Make sure all the fences and gates are secure to help prevent your horse from bolting.
Get more advice from the British Horse Society.