Nowadays, there is a wide range of calming products available for pets – however, it can be really hard to decide which ones are worth the money! In this blog, we’ll have a look at some of the most popular products, and talk about how good they actually are.
It’s very important to remember, however, that calming products are only one part of the story; although they can help, behavioural management and minimising stress in the first place is just as important.
So, what products are there that are worth thinking about?
There are a number of medicines that our vets can prescribe in really serious cases. The two most common are acepromazine and benzodiazepines.
Acepromazine (also known as ACP) is a sedative – it makes the animal feel sleepy and dopey, and is sometimes prescribed to make them easier to handle when coming to the vets, for example. However, it is usually contraindicated in situations where the dog or cat is genuinely afraid, such as for travel sickness or fireworks phobias, as it doesn’t stop them being frightened. In addition, some dogs (like boxers) react badly to the drug, and the degree of response is quite variable in both dogs and cats.
Benzodiazepines, most commonly diazepam or alprazolam, are a class of drugs called anxiolytics. These work by making the animal relaxed and chemically suppressing the fear-response. They are very powerful and are ideal for frightening situations, but dogs and cats rapidly become dependent on them (a bit like addiction), so they’re generally best used only for short periods. They are also potentially addictive to people, so our vets have extra rules they have to abide by if prescribing them.
All mammals (including humans!) communicate by scent to some degree; however, the exact scent molecule (or pheromone) used is specific to each species. There are two working pheromone calming products available for pets. Although some imitation products are marketed as being “pheromone based” or “calming aromatherapy”, these do not usually work as well, if at all, because they do not contain an active species-specific chemical messenger.
Adaptil is the product for dogs, and contains dog appeasing pheromone (DAP). This is the scent produced by a bitch to relax her puppies by reassuring them that they are safe. It is available as collars, sprays and a diffuser for the whole house.
Feliway is the equivalent for cats, containing feline facial pheromone – the scent that cats use to mark their own territory. Feliway is available as sprays and a household diffuser.
The evidence for the effectiveness of these products against stress and phobias is very good, and they have no effect on non-target species (so Adaptil doesn’t affect cats, and Feliway doesn’t affect dogs, and neither will affect humans). However, for best effect, these pheromones need 2-4 weeks to “kick in” before the frightening or stressful event begins.
In general, nutritional supplements have only very limited calming activity – if it was possible to prove their effectiveness and reliability, the manufacturers would license them as a medicine! However, there are three products in particular we should talk about.
Zylkene is a product containing the milk protein, casein. This is licensed as a food supplement because it it made from food-grade milk, and because this protein in itself has no effect on your pet’s body. However, in the intestine of both dogs and cats, casein is broken down into a benzodiazepine-like chemical – it is less potent than the drugs listed above, but does have genuine calming effects (it is, for example, the reason why puppies and kittens usually fall asleep right after a milk meal). Once again, Zylkene is best if used before the stress begins.
Calmex is a complex mixture of different calming products; for most of the components there’s relatively little evidence of their effectiveness. However, it does contain Piper methysticum, better known as kava-kava, a plant originally used in Polynesian tribal rituals that is known to have mild sedative and relaxing properties. The manufacturers claim that the product works within 30 minutes, and although its effectiveness isn’t proven in dogs and cats, it may be useful in some cases.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is found in many calming diets and supplements. Tryptophan is used by the body to manufacture the neurotransmitter serotonin – deficiencies of serotonin are associated in humans with depression and other mental disorders. In theory, tryptophan supplementation should enable animals to better cope with stress, but the jury is still out on how well it actually works in practice.