If you’ve ever come home to find the stuffing ripped from your cushions or the curtains shredded to ribbons and one very guilty-looking canine doing his best to avoid eye contact, you’ve got a dog suffering from separation anxiety.
Veterinarians say it’s one of the most common complaints they hear from pet parents. The condition, which can manifest in these types of destructive behaviours, is often the result of poor or ineffective training, which leaves your pooch with little or no self-control or confidence. As pack leaders, we ourselves can cause the quivers by how we leave or return to the dog: too much fuss can endorse his own concern about our absence. Sufficient and suitable training, exercise, affection and interaction can quell these fears — and behaviours — over time. But while you embark on a plan, you may need to turn to other remedies to keep your pet calm, cool and collected.
Vets will often prescribe medication, but that’s not a viable long-term strategy, especially since some drugs have potentially serious side effects.
What if you could help mellow your pet with something a little more natural? What if that something was hemp? Yes, it belongs to the cannabis sativa species, just as marijuana does, but before you jump to conclusions, with visions of a glassy-eyed hound dog pawing at you for munchies, rest assured that, unlike the marijuana derivative, hemp contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive drug Delta(9)-THC. And hemp-based pet products and supplements are not new; Seattle company Canna-Pet has been in the hemp-for-pets biz for a few years, offering food products and supplements to treat anxiety-related behaviours as well as joint problems.
The latest to jump into the fray is New York assemblyman and veterinarian Dr. Stephen Katz, who has partnered with Dixie Brands, Inc., which conducts cannabinoid extraction. Katz has spent a decade developing a powder, called Therabis, which he says is sprinkled over your dog’s food to quickly and effectively treat common ailments like separation anxiety, itching and joint mobility issues.
“There are 400 different compounds in the cannabis plant, which fall into what are called cannabinoids and terpenes,” says Katz, founder of Bronx-based Concourse Animal Hospital. “Of the 400 compounds, one has a psychogenic component to it, and that is Delta(9)-THC. That is what gets you high. I will tell you that in my formulations there is no Delta(9)-THC; they do not get anybody high. What it has in it as a primary active component is Cannabidiol [CBD], which is a known highly effective anti-inflammatory.”
The company claims that, unlike other products, such as those produced by Canna-Pet, theirs is not solely a CBD product. Therabis, they say, combines CBD and hemp along with ingredients such as bromelain, quercetin and green-lipped mussels into one formula, for example, that alleviates itching.
Katz has conducted field studies over the past two-and-a-half years, and a double blind clinical study is about to get underway at his alma mater, University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinarian Medicine. Even before the results are in, Katz plans to move ahead with the sale and distribution of his Therabis powders in November, which will be available online. Currently, the powders consist of sachets of mixed and measured doses of hemp and other natural ingredients for specific ailments, but Katz plans to also develop food-based products. He’s encouraged that his study results so far have revealed virtually no side effects, not even lethargy. “The treatment calms [dogs] down,” he says, noting that the powders, which will cost roughly a dollar a day, are most likely treatment for life, like any therapeutic supplement that works, he says.
“It’s almost a paradoxical effect; they’re calmer but they’re active. I’ve found that it is highly effective both on its own and [as a complement]. I’ve seen allergic dogs that are so bad that inevitably they need adjunct assistance from, say, a steroid. In my practice, I had to give a dog a steroid injection every 60 days to keep it under control, but once I started using our formula, I’m giving that steroid maybe once or twice a year, and at half the dose.”
Katz says he’s also developing a compound for, well, cats, and is also working on a formula for the beef industry. “We expect to assist as many four-legged, furry animals as possible. I’m not sure how much work I’m going to put into iguanas or snakes, however.”
Katz says the reaction from his peers has been one of either fascination or ignorance. He doesn’t use the term pejoratively, however; he says most simply don’t know enough about what he’s doing. Mostly, he says, “It’s been very positive.”
But not entirely. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association told Yahoo! that, “CVMA does not hold a position on the use of cannabis in animals as research is just now beginning on the use of marijuana in animals. There is considerable interest but it will be some time before answers will be available. Currently, there are no therapeutic protocols since cannabis is not legally available for use by veterinarians in animals.”
Dr. Brennen McKenzie, veterinarian at the Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos, California, and past-president of the Evidence-Based Veterinary Medicine Association, goes further, saying, “I am not aware of any new clinical research showing cannabinoids are safe or effective for behavioural problems or any other disease in companion animals such as dogs and cats. If such research existed for Dr. Katz's product, I'm sure he would use it as part of his marketing efforts, but he simply cites his own clinical experience, which is not a reliable guide to the safety or effectiveness of medical therapies; if it were we wouldn't need scientific research in the first place. He mentions a clinical trial is being conducted, but in the absence of any published results or information about the trial, using this as a reason to trust the product is just like asking a car dealer to sell you a car by promising that you will have some money coming in soon to pay for it. Until the research is done, it is not evidence that the product is safe or effective.”
McKenzie, who writes and speaks on evidence-based medicine at continuing education meetings and in his blog, SkeptVet, is nonetheless hopeful and encouraged by the possibilities. “I believe that cannabinoids and other components of marijuana have potential to be useful medicines, and I am pleased that the cultural stigma about marijuana is no longer hampering efforts to research these,” he says. “But that doesn't mean we should just assume these substances actually are safe and effective medicines. That has to be proven by good science, just as for other promising therapies. Giving these chemicals to patients without doing this research is unethical and unsafe, and it amounts to experimenting on patients. I would not prescribe such remedies to my own patients outside the context of appropriately monitored clinical trials, and I don't believe it is appropriate to do so.”
So, if you’re waiting for the smoke to clear before venturing into the relatively uncharted waters of industrial hemp-based products for your paranoid pet, but still want to steer clear of pharmaceuticals, you might want to consider other natural remedies, such as the following (always consult your vet before using supplements, even natural products):
Valerian — Studies have shown valerian can reduce tension and stress, with the added benefit of inducing sleep, but shouldn’t be used for extended periods.
Chamomile —Chamomile acts on the same parts of the brain and nervous system as anti-anxiety drugs do, reducing stress and promoting relaxation and drowsiness.
Rhododendron — This herb can be steeped into a tea and rubbed onto Fido’s skin or poured into a dish to permeate the air.
Hops — No, don’t crack open a Bud for your buddy; it’s the dried flowers that do the trick (and spare the liver).
Lemon Balm — This sedative plant has been used to treat excitability and anxiety as well as mild pain.
Oat — Cooked oatmeal is a calming aid with the side benefit of being a tasty treat. It’s also safe enough to be used over long periods, although watch your dog’s weight since it’s relatively high in calories.
Skullcap — Some people find skullcap, a member of the mint family, effective for nervous tension and inflammation (as well as canine epilepsy).
Echinacea — This herb can boost the body's immune system under stress, as well as reduce itching, infection and inflammation.
St. John's Wort — Effective either on its own or used alongside valerian, this popular herb can be mixed in your dog's food or water, but because it’s a mild anti-depressant, it should not be used continuously for extended periods of time.
Essential oils —As aromatherapy, frankincense, lavender, rose, coriander, clove spearmint, geranium, balsam fir, juniper and sage can be useful in helping pets breathe easier. Never use essential oils on cats since their livers can’t break down their compounds and can lead to serious illness – even death. Instead, use the dried form of herbs inside a tube collar or “pillow”.