This is a topic that has come up many, many times on all the groups and lists I’ve been part of over the past decade; how can we use herbs to help our nervous, hyperactive, thunderphobic, stressed out dogs? I’ve written a fair bit here, and elsewhere, on how to adjust diet, use supplements, TTouch, DAP and more for anxiety : so this entry will focus specifically on the selection and use of herbs. Herbs are extremely powerful allies for all kinds of nervous system issues in humans and in dogs, but the trick is to know how to use them. This entry, and my forthcoming E-book, will help you make the wisest choices – safest, most effective, and best suited to your unique individual.
First; a look at the terms. We call any herb whose Actions affect the CNS (central nervous system) a “nervine“. In popular usage, a nervine more or less equates with a sedative – a relaxing herb that helps your dog calm down. And to be fair, some of them do exactly that – excel at that! But, to understand the term more fully, and develop the formulation that offers optimal support for an individual dog, we need to take a deeper look. Nervines are classed as stimulating as well as relaxing (think:coffee – now that affects the nervous system) and also as, tonic (or trophorestorative, meaning they act over time to balance and heal the system) hypnotic, anti-spasmodic, and adaptogen. So, the best way to define a nervine is a herb that affects the nervous system; and to be more precise, classify them further according to just how they do that. While we humans use herbal nervines in a wide variety of ways, the most popular usage for dogs is generally to help them calm down, overcome anxiety, and maintain a peaceful outlook in the face of situations that stress them.
So, simply put; for nervous, excitable dogs, we want to help them handle stress. But often, the sedating effect is transient and acts only for a few hours – relieving or mitigating the most challenging symptoms, but also potentially masking whatever is going on underneath.To more fully address the anxious or nervous dog, I often recommend the use of one formula at the time of the stressor, and a second formulation might well be given daily to help the body adapt to stress or to balance hormones and calm excitability. Trophorestorative Nervines can help bring back a feeling of safety and control; they can work to calm a reactive dog; in concert with behavioural work, TTouch and sometimes dietary changes, they can be powerful allies for healing the nervous, anxious, uptight, reactive, phobic individual. Put simply; the goal of longterm nervine use is to restore balance to the nervous system.
Short term, the sedating, relaxing and hypnotics are most useful; longer term, I tend to use adaptogens ( helps the dog adapt to stress) along with trophorestoratives. In case this is all sounding very technical, I’ll break it all down categorically, by Action. An understanding of the Actions of plants is foundational knowledge for anyone working with herbs. So let’s take a quick peek at herbs that have a sedating/relaxing effect, and may be best utilized in instances of acute stress; vet visits, pain, thunderstorms or other sources of fear and anxiety.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – tried and true, safe, gentle, will calm associated upset stomach as well
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) – probably my single favorite relaxing nervine for dogs. period full stop – short term and on a regular, restorative basis
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) – sedating to the point of soporific, good where pain is fueling the issue; I use with Passionflower all the time for thunderphobia or nighttime pacing/anxiety in older dogs
Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) A wonderful medicine to help old, perhaps cognitively impaired dogs to rest at night. I make my own but recommend working with a skilled herbalist, as it is tricky to prepare, and needs precision dosing, often very little.
Jamaica Dogwood (Piscidia Piscipula) Sedating and antispasmodic but toxic in high doses, so I almost always use in formula
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) gentle and sweet, but a potent relaxant – only point of contraindication is possible thyroid-suppressing action. Not for use in dogs with hypothyroidism, but wonderful otherwise.
Skullcap (Scutalleria lateriflora, related species) I use it in almost every anti anxiety formula I make. Safe, gentle but powerful, occasionally a dog as no response, so I tend to test it alone first – it may be all you need, it may do little. When it works, it’s incredible.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) This highly underused herb is a staple in my own apothecary, betony is a gentle tonic herb that can offer relief from general pain, anxiety and insomnia. Betony goes inot most of my trophorestorative frmulas as it is most effective when give over time and has no contraindications, but shoulnd’t be used in pregnancy.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)It’s popular and highly effective for many, but because it carries a risk of exacerbating anxiety (in people, too) it’s not a go-to herb for me at all, if I do use it with a dog I test it in small amounts and never at the first sign of anxiety. It can be a wonderful aid for many, ubt my sense of this is, so can others, so why risk exacerbating the issue?
Lavender (Lavandula spp) I don’t use it internally much but sometimes spray a Hydrosol around a room when I’m dealing with, say, thunderphobia.
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) A good anxiolytic, not top of my own list but I have used it and will likely again. Bad press about kava’s potential to cause liver damage was largely unfounded.
Linden flower (Tilia Platyphyllos) Gentle and safe, linden puts ME right to sleep, and is a favorite of mine (with wild lettuce) for anxious seniors. or any dog with heart trouble
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) I tend to use Hypericum more as a longterm remedy, but it does seem to help with acute issues like thunderphobia, and vet visits, so I see value for it in formula for those types of cases.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis, but I use Verbena hastata, or wild Blue Vervain as well, in small doses/formula!) Not for the home herbalist, I start very small and use with dogs who have pain, and exhibit rigid, tense muscles – it’s amazing in formula but too much and they space out, can create nausea too.
Rose (Rosa rugosa, related spp)..my personal favorite when grief has implanted a sense of anxiety about specific situations, such as the dog saw another dog die at the vet and is now fearful; for emotional pain. I tend to use drop doses of alcohol tincture in these cases.
All of these herbs (and of course, there are others) can be used singly or in formula to address the acute symptoms of stress and anxiety. Depending on the dose and the dog, they may gently relax or they may put your dog right out. In my E-book on herbal nervines for dogs I will discuss dosage, formulation and possible contraindications for each one, as well as looking at various delivery systems (tincture or glycerite, infusions, honeys, in treats and more). Some, like chamomile, have virtually no warnings attached save for the possibility of allergy, as with all herbs it’s important to test the dog with a low dose first before using it medicinally. Others, as mentioned above, are best used under the guidance of an experienced herbalist. The goal of a relaxing nervine is to help your dog relax, not knock him or her right out, so dosage is extremely important.
Many home herbalists who want to help dogs calm down (say, during a thunderstorm, or when separated from a family member) use a formula to address symptoms at the time of the stress. As mentioned above, what’s missing is a herb or formula to help the anxious dog’s CNS regain balance over time. Some herbs, such as the wonderful Milky oats (Avena sativa) or the less popular (but amazing) Peach leaf(Prunus persica), work as restorative, healing medicines for these issues (and note too that the high strung or worried dog likely will manifest stress in the body in other ways, such as bouts of unexplained loose stool, skin sensitivity, or cardiac stress, along with the more familiar pacing, panting, whining, drooling and destructive behaviour designed to offset the worry). Others act to build the body’s resistance to stress; these are the adaptogens and include many popular plants such as American Ginseng, Rhodiola, Ashwaganda, Shatavari, Reishi mushroon, Cordyceps and Astragalus. For me, these longterm herbs are what really benefit the dog overall the most. In many of my client cases I have seen not just improved reactivity in stress situations but also better digestion, fewer hotspots and a range of other systemic benefits. How we select and formulate adaptogens for dogs is entirely dependent on taking a clinical history and understanding not just what stresses him and how it manifests, but all kinds of details such as his body temperature, vaccination history, relationships to family, how he’s been trained, exercise level and more.
While selecting adaptogens can be tricky, and may be best left to a professional, most edgy dogs can benefit from the simple medicine of Milky Oats, and/or Peach leaf, given over time as a trophorestorative. I encourage dog lovers to work with these gentle restoratives as well as the adaptogens; by far the best results I see are when the whole dog is supported, and brought into balance. If this topic interests you please keep an eye open for my full E-book on using all the aforementioned herbs, and more. Here’s to cool, calm, and happy canines!