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Natural Living

Calming Pet Anxiety

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Pets like familiar people and routines, and the holiday season poses some challenges. “Change, noises, new situations-which all happen during holiday celebrations-can be stressful to pets,” says Chicago-based Barbara Royal, DVM, a pioneer in integrative medicine for animals, author of The Royal Treatment: A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets, and president of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.

“Stress not only makes them anxious, but it can also upset their tummies,” adds Royal. Just like people, pets are less stressed when they eat the right food. “Dogs and cats, as carnivores, should not have a high-carb diet, and they should not be eating corn, wheat, soy, or peanut butter,” says Royal. For special treats, choose something meaty without seasoning, and leave the pumpkin pie for people.

Exercise is another basic. “A tired animal will be more calm,” says Royal. She recommends especially long walks-in areas where there are lots of things to smell-and extra playtime for dogs. Exercise cats by playing games, such as wiggling your hand under a blanket, throwing treats down a long hallway, or using a toy that mimics things cats like to chase.

To calm pets during festivities, Royal also offers these tips:

  • If the usual dog treats don’t work, try these: Line a Kong (a natural rubber, bouncy chew toy with room for treats inside) with butter, cream cheese, liverwurst, or meat baby food and freeze it. Or make ice cubes of chicken broth or meat baby food.
  • For cats, smear a little butter, tuna juice, or meat baby food on their front paws. They’ll start licking it off and go into self-grooming mode, which is calming.
  • Calm both dogs and cats with massage. Use light to moderate pressure and make small circles between the eyes, between the midline and the bony crest of the head, and around the ears. And massage the neck (and chin, especially in cats).
  • Anxious birds, rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs calm down when their cages are moved to a quiet, dark area.

Calming Herbs

There are a variety of calming remedies specially formulated for dogs or cats that include ingredients such as chamomile and tryptophan. Very few human supplements are safe for pets, but you can use these three herbs if you are careful with dosing: valerian, kava, chamomile, and/or passionflower. “These herbs in general are well tolerated and safe,” says Henry Pasternak, DVM, a Los Angeles-based integrative vet and the author of Healing Pets with Nature’s Miracle Cures.

For human supplements, check with an integrative vet and/or use this rough guide: a dog that weighs 75-90 pounds can be given an adult dosage, and a smaller dog, or a cat, would get proportionally less, depending on weight. For example, if the human dose is three capsules daily, a 30-pound dog could get one capsule per day and a 10-pound cat one-quarter to one-half of a capsule per day.

Pasternak warns against using tranquilizing drugs for cats or dogs, especially pets over 10 years old. “In older animals, side effects can be severe and the sedative effects can linger,” he says.

How to Use Anti-Anxiety Pet Remedies

Choose a supplement formulated for dogs or cats and follow product directions. Or, use an appropriate dose of a human herbal formula. Avoid tinctures or liquid formulas because they are usually alcohol-based, and alcohol is toxic to pets.

Capsules can be opened and mixed with food. For cats, who may balk at the scent of herbs, Pasternak suggests mixing capsule contents with raw or organic cream or milk.

Herbal remedies might take effect in hours, but they can take longer to kick in, so it pays to plan ahead. If your dog or cat easily becomes anxious or stressed, start using a calming supplement a few days or up to a week before a holiday event just to be on the safe side.

Toxic to Dogs and Cats

Any of these can make your dog or cat ill.

People foods: Chocolate, coffee, caffeine, alcohol, avocado, macadamia nuts, grapes, raisins, yeast dough, xylitol (a popular sugar alternative in many products), onions, garlic, chives, large amounts of salt, too much milk or dairy products, and raw or undercooked meat, eggs, and bones.

Plants and flowers: Poinsettias and lilies are holiday favorites, but toxic to pets. For a complete list, visit the Pet Care section at