Are Supplements Helpful for Dogs with Separation Anxiety?
By: Dr. Judy Korman, VMD, MBA
Supplements are becoming increasingly popular with people who are seeking drug-free options for their anxious dogs. Supplements are highly appealing to many pet owners because they view them as more “natural” than medications and that they don’t carry the same potential risk of side effects. Many owners take some of these supplements themselves. They also can be less expensive than prescription drugs, and supplements are readily available in pet stores and online.
Makers of these supplements, sometimes referred to as nutraceuticals, claim their products help support relaxation in dogs with hyperactivity, aggression, situational anxiety (fear of noises, travel, and other anxieties) and separation anxiety. But do these supplements work? Are they safe to give your pet? If so, which products are best, and what ingredients should you look for or avoid?
What Conditions Are ‘Calming’ Supplements Used For?
Different types of supplements address different conditions. Glucosamine, the most popular supplement given to dogs, is used for joint health and arthritis as it’s an amino sugar naturally found in the fluid surrounding joints. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids that are believed to improve skin and coat health. Calming supplements for dogs are believed to target neurotransmitters such as dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, which help regulate mood and the autonomic nervous system which controls the fight, flight, rest, and digest responses. Some supplements rely on the sedative effects of ingredients such as melatonin or valerian root to promote calm behavior.
When beginning supplements for your dog, do so under the supervision of your veterinarian and use as directed. Your veterinarian can help you determine what the right dosage should be and will advise if certain ingredients might make any underlying medical conditions your dog already has worse.
The Complexity of Supplements
Marketing claims are claims — not clinical evidence that a product will help reduce the signs of separation anxiety or other anxieties in your dog. And while many supplements are promoted as “natural” and may even include organic ingredients, this does not mean these products are necessarily safe for your dog to consume. Also, keep in mind that while many products share the same ingredients, manufacturers may use different formulations and concentrations.
Supplements are not highly regulated. Animal dietary supplements, depending on their intended use, are considered either a food or an animal drug by the FDA, not a separate category. When categorized as a pet food, supplements do not require pre-market approval from the FDA. The FDA will not pull a pet supplement product off the market unless the ingredients have been proven to be unsafe and ineffective, which has led to concerns about purity standards and quality control. The exact level of the ingredients in the supplement and the purity of those ingredients may vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer and even from product to product. Thus, it is not always possible to compare one supplement to another. Label transparency is another issue. Some manufacturers may not list the concentration of ingredients in their products, or the stated concentration may not be accurate. Adding to this complexity is the lack of studies regarding the effectiveness of supplements, especially concerning the dosage needed to produce positive results.
Should You Try Supplements to Help Your Dog with Separation Anxiety?
Does all this mean you should skip supplements? Not at all. Supplements can play an important role in decreasing your dog’s overall anxiety, making it easier for them to learn new emotional or behavioral responses to stressors. Many veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists consider supplements beneficial, especially in milder cases or in the early stages of separation anxiety. In more severe and long-term cases of separation anxiety, supplements may be used alongside prescription medications, behavior modification, or other therapies to help improve results. In general, although supplements have not been studied extensively, many are considered safe for long-term use.
What Do Supplements Contain?
Supplements for dogs are available in a variety of forms, including flavored chews, tablets, pills, drops, and powders. There are also a few “calming” dog food formulas on the market that contain added supplements. All of these products include certain types of vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, or other ingredients intended to help dogs maintain their emotional balance. Here are some of the more common ingredients you will find and what the studies suggest:
- Alpha-casozepine – A lactose-free hydrolyzed milk protein (Zylkene®), this nutrient is shown to have some calming properties with no related side effects. One 56–day trial showed Zylkene had a positive impact on dogs with anxiety disorders. In peer-reviewed studies, there was no evidence to show that alpha-casozepine was effective when administered to dogs shortly before exposure to situations that triggered their anxiety “but may have a role to play in reducing anxiety over the medium to longer term.” In another study, dogs exhibited a reduction in anxiety behaviors after 65 days.
- Chamomile – This herb comes from the flowers of the Asteraceae plant family and has been used for centuries to relieve anxiety and inflammation in humans. In one study, a homeopathic blend that contained chamomile helped alleviate symptoms of anxiety in dogs who reacted to firework noises. Although controlled trials for dogs are lacking, chamomile is generally considered safe.
- CBD – Derived from the hemp plant, CBD (or cannabidiol) is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and has been studied in dogs for pain relief. (CBD is not the same as THC, the compound in marijuana that creates a “high” when consumed.) There are no completed studies of CBD oil on dogs with anxiety conditions, but there is anecdotal evidence that this supplement might help with pain and anxiety relief.
- Kava kava – A root from the Piper methysticum plant, kava kava acts as a mild sedative. Some studies suggest that long-term use can lead to liver damage in dogs, so it’s recommended that, if used, kava kava be used only on a short-term basis for situational anxiety, such as noise and travel anxiety.
- L-theanine – An amino acid commonly found in tea leaves, L-theanine (Suntheanine®, Anxitane®, Solliquin®, and Composure®) is thought to increase levels of dopamine and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) — neurotransmitters that play a role in emotional responses. In one sponsored laboratory study, dogs exhibited a decrease in some fear responses. Another study showed dogs with noise phobia experienced clear reductions in their symptoms of anxiety, including panting, yawning, and vocalization. A small percentage of subjects reported minor side effects.
- L-tryptophan – This is an essential amino acid found in both humans and animals. Supplementation of L-tryptophan may increase the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates mood and anxiety. One study of 69 dogs showed no changes in anxiety-related behaviors after eight weeks. However, another study that combined alpha-casozepine with L-tryptophan showed positive results after seven weeks.
- Melatonin – This hormone, which naturally occurs in both humans and animals, helps regulate our sleep cycles. Melatonin, when given as a supplement, has a sedative effect, which can help calm an anxious pet, but there is little research to support its use for separation anxiety. Common side effects include drowsiness and digestive upset.
- Valerian root – Known for its sedating qualities, this root comes from the plant Valeriana officinalis. Although no studies currently exist for canine use, it’s generally considered safe. Drowsiness and lethargy are possible side effects.
- B vitamins – Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is an essential vitamin critical for nervous system function. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can help reduce anxiety in dogs. Nicotinamide (Vitamin B3) and pyridoxine (B6) both help promote the production of serotonin in the brain, among other functions, so there’s potential for these vitamins to create a calming effect.
Other Non-Pharmaceutical Options
- Probiotics – Evidence indicates that bacteria in the digestive tract may influence emotions in both humans and animals. Studies suggest that probiotics may help reduce anxiety and aggression in dogs by modulating stress hormones. A company-sponsored study showed that 90 percent of dogs that were given their probiotic supplement experienced a reduction in their overall anxiety.
- Pheromones – Specific pheromone products — chemical messengers given off by one animal to impact the behavior emotional state of another, such as a synthetic version of the compound that lactating mother dogs naturally secrete when nursing their puppies — can be used to help dogs feel more secure and comfortable. Many studies have examined the effectiveness of pheromones, and the results have been mostly positive, including for dogs with separation anxiety and noise phobia.
- Compression and Anxiety Wraps – These wearable products, like ThunderShirt®, are based on the idea that applying consistent pressure to the body affects the nervous system, triggering a rest and relaxation response. Extensive scientific studies are lacking, but there are many anecdotal accounts from owners reporting an improvement in their dog’s anxiety levels when they wear the wrap or shirt. It can, however, decrease in effectiveness over time as a dog acclimates to wearing it and their anxiety has not otherwise been treated. These compression wearables must be worn during anxiety-inducing events in order to see any effect — as such, they are a symptom management tool rather than anxiety treatment.
- Calmer Canine® – This drug-free solution works by delivering gentle, sensation-free microcurrents to the dog’s anxiety center in their brain (the amygdala). A clinical study showed all dogs experienced a reduction or resolution of their measured separation anxiety behaviors without any side effects.
How to Start Your Dog on Supplements
If you decide to try supplements to help with your dog’s separation anxiety, it’s important to consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. They can recommend the appropriate supplements and correct dosage, as well as reputable manufacturers and products. Some supplements are designed to be short-acting, working within 30 minutes. Other products are designed for long-term use. With these types of supplements, it may take several weeks before you notice any reduction in your dog’s anxiety.
Another important reason to talk with your veterinary professional is they will take into account any medications your dog has been prescribed. Some supplements and medications don’t mix. For example, when L-tryptophan is given with some antidepressant/anti-anxiety medications, there is a potential for serotonin syndrome — a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the serotonin levels in the body are too high.
- Follow your vet’s instructions or the instructions on the label, and then pay attention to how your dog responds to the supplement. Watch for any noted side effects or possible allergic reactions and call your veterinary professional right away if you have any concerns.
- For the best results, combine any supplements with behavior modification and training, whether it be for addressing noise sensitivity or separation anxiety. Focus on counter conditioning (e.g., changing your dog’s reaction to being left alone from negative to positive) and desensitization (e.g., helping your dog gradually build up their tolerance for being home alone).