For pets undergoing treatment for moderate-to-severe behavioural problems, training alone is rarely enough to resolve an issue. It is a neurological fact that highly stressed animals cannot learn and respond to therapy as effectively as calmer, more rationally thinking pets.

And so, products that help to reduce anxiety and calm pets down are often essential in helping dogs and cats progress through their therapy at a reasonable rate.

For owners who are reluctant to give their pets prescription medications to manage their mental-health issues, there are now a variety of non-prescription products, which can sometimes be just as effective at alleviating stress symptoms as their Rx counterparts.

Nutraceuticals are low-hanging fruit, for those who want to expedite their dog’s behavioural improvement, and also help their pets feel happier in the process.

“Nutraceuticals”, a portmanteau term derived from the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”, are exactly that — active ingredients that are derived from foods, and which have some positive physiological effect.

And as it turns out, the average human diet contains many active ingredients that are helpful in the management of behavioural problems in animals. A cup of tea and a glass of warm milk are two compelling examples.

Black tea contains an active ingredient called L-theanine, which acts a little like calming Valium in the short term, and anti-anxiety Prozac when taken regularly over many weeks. No wonder so many of us find a hot cup of tea so good at steadying the nerves!

Similarly, a glass of warm milk contains amino acids, which have calming effects akin to taking Ativan. Most parents will know first-hand how a glass of warm milk at bedtime helps to soothe a child so that they can sleep, part of which is due to this physiological effect.

In recent years, the active calming ingredients from both tea and milk, and also other foods, have been isolated, purified and turned into pills or capsules that they can be administered to pets.

Peer-reviewed clinical trials have deemed some of them safe and effective in the management of many behavioural disorders and thus they are now available in Canada. Nutraceuticals appeal to many pet owners who would rather avoid prescription products, those who wish to avoid side effects altogether, or whose pets need something mild to just “help take the edge off”.

Regardless of how safe or effective these products are, what should owners consider before giving nutraceuticals to their pets?

Interested pet owners should start with a visit to their veterinary clinic — partly because many of these products are only available through your veterinarian, but also because they should be administered with the same considerations as any prescription medication.

Whilst nutraceuticals are not toxic in the same way as many prescription drugs are in high doses, still, it is possible to give a pet too much or not enough, and thus your veterinarian needs to make sure that your pet is receiving the right dose at the right intervals. It is also important to ensure that the active ingredients do not interact negatively with any other medications that your pet might be receiving.

Your veterinarian and behaviourist can also ensure that your pet is being given the nutraceutical that is best for your pet’s particular issue. These products are not a panacea for all behavioural problems, and a thorough work up is still advised, so that your pet does not delay in getting the best, targeted treatment for their condition.

Nutraceuticals are also not cheap, costs being comparable to many prescription psycho-pharmaceuticals. So, deciding on the right product at the right dose will also help you avoid wasting your money.

It is also important to remember that nutraceuticals have limitations. They can make a dent in most behavioural problems. But, unless they undergo appropriate behavioural therapy at the same time, they are band-aids for as long as your pet is taking the product. Nutraceuticals help to make your pet more responsive to training and behavioural modification, and are unlikely to cause permanent changes when used in isolation.

Given the costs and potential gains, personally, I love these products. I have seen the behaviour of hundreds of pets transformed through the use of nutraceuticals, including my own, and consider them a vital adjunct to behavioural therapy for many conditions. In addition to helping keep my one-year-old Springer spaniel under control, the improvement in her behaviour whilst on a nutraceutical has helped keep me sane too. If you think your pet would benefit from some behavioural intervention, speak to your veterinarian or clinical animal behaviourist for advice.

Dr. Rebecca Ledger is an animal behaviour scientist, and sees cats and dogs with behaviour problems on veterinary referral across the Lower Mainland.

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