Everyone hopes to find a “natural” way to manage a pet’s fear, anxiety, or stress, but there’s more to consider than you might think. Here are the pros and cons of nutraceuticals and supplements.
The word “nutraceutical” was coined as a combination of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical” quite recently–in 1989–and arguments about its precise definition have been going on ever since. Informally, nutraceuticals are products derived from food, but essentially used to treat or affect health. For practical purposes this category also encompasses what are usually called supplements, such as those derived from herbs. They are all products that aren’t quite drugs but are used for similar purposes, and some are claimed to be useful for treating fear, anxiety, and stress in pets.
How do supplements and nutraceuticals work? There’s no simple answer to that, any more than there’s a simple answer to “how do drugs work”–it differs case by case. But in general they often work similarly to medications prescribed for the same condition. For example, some studies have shown that alpha-casozepine, derived from milk protein, can help to reduce anxiety. Alpha-casozepine works by affecting neurotransmitters in a similar way to benzodiazepines, the class of drugs including Valium and Xanax, so it’s no surprise it has a similar effect.
Natural: Looking Beneath The Surface
The appeal of supplements and nutraceuticals for most people is the idea that they’re more natural than drugs. The word “natural” gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling, but lots of things that are natural are dangerous to ingest: some of the plants in your yard and many natural foods such as raisins could make your pets very ill. “Natural” also doesn’t guarantee “no side effects”: logically, anything active enough in the body to have an effect that you want is also active enough to have some effect you don’t want.
It’s also important to remember that since these products are not drugs, they’re essentially unregulated. If you follow the news, you know that some supplement products for humans have been found to be tainted. There’s also no guarantee that they contain what they say or do what they claim, so investigation is crucial.
Only a limited number of drugs have been approved to treat fear, anxiety, and stress in pets, and a considerable body of research shows that some of these supplements can help. So they’re worth considering, but you need to do your research and involve your veterinarian in the decision.
“Don’t just grab the thing on the shelf that looks like it would work,” says board-certified veterinary behaviorist Jill Orlando, DVM. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that isn’t effective and is just going to waste your money and prolong the animal’s enduring fear, anxiety, and stress.”
While these products don’t require a prescription, they require just as much caution and consideration to use. They can have side effects and drug interactions, and you can’t just believe what the seller tells you about their effectiveness.
Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says, “If you want to go natural, accept number one: that safe options are limited; number two, that you must go to your veterinarian; and number three, your vet may not know anything, and that’s okay.” Vets aren’t taught this research in school, so your vet may need time to do some reading about what substances and products are suitable. But you need to involve your vet to make sure you have a correct diagnosis of your pet’s problem. Dr. Radosta says, “If your vet doesn’t know what to do, she can call a veterinary behaviorist who does know what to do.”
If you find a product you want to try, have appropriate expectations about efficacy. “In my experience, you will get about half of the positive effect from a supplement as you will get from an appropriately chosen medication,” Dr. Radosta says. Typically, she counts it as a success to see a 25 percent change in behavior, compared to a drug, where she’d expect a 50 percent change to consider it effective.
Because nutraceuticals and supplements are less effective, Dr. Radosta says that if you want to achieve the same results with a supplement as with a medication, your pet will probably need to be on more than one supplement. This may not seem like a big deal, but it may be more complicated than you think. Dr. Radosta has one patient, a Belgian Malinois with a serious storm phobia, who was having side effects from medications, so they decided to go natural: “She gets 11 capsules a day, because I had to combine four supplements to get the same positive effect.”
And if you think your dog will be okay with getting 11 pills a day, there’s also cost to consider: these products tend to be more expensive than the equivalent drugs.
Dr. Radosta isn’t against using these kinds of products for pets–she uses them herself–but she advises clients to have realistic expectations. “I take valerian root at night to help me sleep,” she says. “Probably if I took Ambien it would be more reliable, but I don’t want to, so I accept the limitations: valerian tastes like dirt, the pills are gigantic, and it doesn’t keep me asleep all night.”
Finally, accept that it’s rare to non-existent that a behavior problem is completely solved by a pill, whether that pill is drug, a supplement, or a nutraceutical. Ideally, these treatments are combined with appropriate behavioral modification. The job of the medication is to temper fear and anxiety to the point that animals are calm enough to learn.
Dr. Orlando says it’s similar to the case with humans; while medications are important for depression and anxiety, it’s more effective to combine them with therapy. The same is true for our pets.
“They have to learn coping skills,” she says. “That’s what behavioral modification does, teach them coping skills.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.