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Just like people, our pets can develop anxiety, too (and some are naturally more disposed to the condition than others). But dealing with your dog’s anxiety is another issue, and understanding the factors contributing to your pet’s anxiety can help you determine the best approach to helping her.
A range of treatments are available—from prescription medication to just spending more time with your dog—but this post takes a closer look at the popular, over-the-counter option of calming treats. Are they effective? How do they work? What dogs might benefit from them? Read on for more information about dog anxiety, calming treats, and our list of recommended calming treat brands.
What Is Anxiety in Dogs?
Dog anxiety is a natural fear response gone slightly haywire. The fight/flight/freeze reaction is a healthy and necessary survival tool that is activated in response to a real threat, but anxiety occurs when this reaction takes place in anticipation of something that can’t do actual harm (such as thunder, fireworks, sudden loud noises, a new environment, or even visual stimuli like hats and umbrellas). Pets can develop anxiety for a number of reasons, “from puppy socialization issues and age-related health conditions like dementia to traumatic experiences or genetics,” according to PetMD.
Other sources of anxiety in dogs include aging, and one of the most common forms of stress in dogs, separation anxiety. The American Kennel Club writes that age-related anxiety is “similar to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in humans…[when] memory, learning, perception, and awareness start to decline.”
Separation anxiety has been anecdotally linked to dogs who have spent time in shelters, have been rehomed, or have a history of abandonment; it can be triggered by a change in routine, family members joining or leaving the household, and/or simply being left alone, for any amount of time.
Dog Anxiety Symptoms
Your dog can’t use words to tell you when or why she’s feeling anxious, but her behavior will offer clues. The AKC provides this list of key indicators that your dog may be struggling with anxiety:
- Urinating or defecating in the house
- Destructive behavior
- Excessive barking
- Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
There are instances where you may be able to easily find and treat the cause of your dog’s anxiety (when you might consider approaches such as situation avoidance, regular exercise and stimulation, and/or behavioral or obedience training), but in some cases, your dog’s anxiety may be totally out of your control (cue the 4th of July fireworks). In those times, you may want to seek out an alternative remedy—which brings us to calming treats.
What Are Calming Treats?
Using herbs and vitamins as their active ingredients, calming treats are a non-medicinal anxiety-treating remedy you can offer your dog to help soothe her symptoms. Also called calming chews or calming bites, they fall under the category of nutraceuticals, and are similar to nutritional supplements for humans (and are loosely regulated in the same manner). Dr. Erin Perotti-Orcutt, DVM at Four Paws Veterinary Center in Seattle, Washington, says using a common-sense filter and reading the fine print is a good strategy when considering one.
“There are certainly some good ones, but there isn’t much regulation around nutraceutical products so [manufacturers] can make a lot of unfounded claims,” she says.
For example, even though a calming treat may contain chamomile, “a dog would not eat chamomile in the wild,” Dr. Perotti-Orcutt explains. Dogs are carnivores by nature and while there’s no indication that these herbs are harmful to pets, calming treats that contain them generally lack evidence that supports the idea that animals will react to them the same way humans do.
The same goes for other herbal ingredients in calming treats such as lavender or ginger, which have long been recognized as relaxing for humans, but which haven’t been extensively tested for animal use.
More active ingredients commonly found in calming treats such as tryptophan or melatonin have more documented calming effects. Other ingredients such as the amino acid L-Theanine (also known as Suntheanine), is thought to work by increasing your dog’s serotonin and dopamine levels, and probiotics, which are thought to promote digestive health in addition to supporting a positive mental state and help with dogs who tend to get diarrhea when stressed.
So, should you try calming treats? Dr. Perotti-Orcutt says it’s something that should be “definitely in the toolbox,” adding a multimodal approach that includes pheromones, pressure wraps, and puzzle toys is the optimal way to go for non-medicinal home remedies.
Best Calming Treats for Dogs
Jeanette, a dog owner in Seattle, told me that she observed great results after giving her two rescue dogs these treats to help “ease morning walks, for general anxiety, aggression, and to help focus.”
Amazon reviewers generally indicate this product helps promote calmness and soothe over-reactivity.Buy Now on Amazon for $9.20
Praised by reviewers for soothing dogs with storm sensitivity and for helping calm rescue dogs transitioning to their forever home, maxxicalm is a B vitamin and L-Theanine supplement, bolstered with chamomile.Buy Now on Amazon for $31.47
This sedative-free, L-theanine supplement has an appealing chicken flavor and claims to help keep dogs calm for up to four hours.Buy Now on Amazon for $14
Specially formulated with Thiamin, L-Tryptophan, Melatonin, and ginger, these soft chews taste like a treat and are said to help promote normal nervous system function and facilitate a calm, restful state.Buy Now on Amazon for $12.99
Calming Treat Alternatives
For dogs who might reject the taste or texture of a calming chew, are too nervous to eat, or are not treat-driven, consider one of these alternatives to calming treats.
Mimicking the chemicals released by nursing pet mothers, pheromones are a home remedy used for occasional pet anxiety and stress. Available as plug-in room diffusers, a spray (for bedding, near food bowls, etc.), or a collar, pheromones emit a strong, soothing scent easily detected by pets (and barely detectable to humans).
Popular pet brands Adaptil and Thunderworks teamed up on this plug-in, 30-day pheromone diffuser, said to cover rooms up to 700 square feet, for situations when your dog might be more anxious, such as when unfamiliar guests come to visit, or you are introducing new pets into your home.Buy Now on Amazon for $21.95
Those calming pheromones are now with your dog wherever she goes, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety and comfort her in all situations.Buy Now on Amazon for $27.50
The ThunderShirt is a pressure wrap for anxious dogs that was designed to have a calming effect by approximating the feeling of a hug. They’re a popular, drug-free option for addressing a dog’s anxiety, especially when calming treats don’t seem to work.
The original ThunderShirt comes in a charcoal gray color and fits dogs of all sizes and shapes. See here for a sizing chart.Buy Now on Amazon for $39.95
Distraction and Puzzle Toys
When your dog’s anxiety is due to a loud event (such as a thunderstorm or fireworks), you can try to create a space in your home that offers a distraction. Using a white noise machine in a quiet room with the blinds drawn—perhaps even a crate with a blanket laid over it—might help. Adding a puzzle toy to mentally engage your dog and help divert her attention from the distressing noise could also help.
Reduce boredom and stress with this colorful, interactive toy designed to capture your dog’s attention and stimulate her problem-solving skills.Buy Now on Amazon for $16.70