Managing canine behavioral issues often requires a multimodal approach that incorporates environmental modification, behavior training tactics, and therapeutics. For behavior issues stemming from stress and anxiety, botanical remedies can be utilized as the sole therapeutic, or strategically incorporated to provide adjunctive support to conventional therapies. Plant-derived supplements can be effective at relatively low concentrations and produce few side effects, compared to conventional drugs, making both short- and long-term use more desirable for behavior management.
Many of these botanical remedies work by modulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send signals from a neuron, across a synapse, to a target cell located in the peripheral and central nervous system (PNS and CNS, respectively). Serotonin and dopamine are important neurotransmitters for modulating mood balance, behavior, and stress response. Norepinephrine encourages focus and concentration, and GABA, also known as the “inhibitor transmitter”, promotes a sense of calm. Each neurotransmitter exists in certain concentrations, relative to each other, and maintaining a proper balance is essential for achieving healthy behavior.1.2
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a flowering plant that commonly grows around the U.S. and Canada. Its active constituents include hypericin, hyperforin, and flavonoids like quercetin and amentoflavone.3 St. John’s Wort inhibits re-uptake of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA, increasing their circulating availability for neural cells. Its specific effect on serotonin makes it an effective sole therapeutic for modulating a healthy mood and temperament. St. John’s Wort should not be used with pharmacologic antidepressants that have similar mechanisms of action, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), because of the risk for serotonin toxicity.4
Extract of passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is another botanical therapeutic containing flavonoids that help regulate mood and reduce anxiety by depressing, or calming, the CNS.3 It likely does this by inhibiting GABA-ligand binding, thereby increasing circulating GABA in the CNS.5
Another method of managing stress and anxiety is by modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA axis) to reduce or balance nitric oxide and cortisol production. An adaptogen called Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), also known as Siberian ginseng, works via this method.6 In veterinary medicine specifically, it has been recommended for use in shelters where stress is high, and even as a prophylaxis against stress.7
A more recent target of botanical therapeutics is balancing the endocannabinoid system, the group of specialized endogenous cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 and their lipid ligands. Cannabidiol is one of approximately 60 cannabinoids present in Cannabis spp. plants that reduces anxiety, improves energy, manages the stress response, and balances mood. It likely does so by inhibiting degradation of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid, which binds CB1 in the brain, resulting in the desired effects.8,9 This is a rapidly evolving field of research that could prove useful for canine behavioral issues.
The management of behavioral problems in dogs, caused by stress, fear/phobias, or anxiety, is challenging and often requires long-term therapy with a multimodal approach. When devising a treatment plan, the use of botanical therapeutics should be considered either as a short-term adjunct support or as a safe long-term management strategy.
1Riva J, Bondiolotti G, Michelazzi M, Verga M, Carenzi C. Anxiety related behavioural disorders and neurotransmitters in dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2008; 114: 168-181.
2Sheffler ZM, Reddy V, Pillarisetty LS. Physiology, Neurotransmitters. [Updated 2020 May 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539894/.
3Wynn SG, Fougere BJ. Veterinary Herbal Medicine: A Systems-Based Approach. In: Wynn and Fougere, ed. Veterinary Herbal Medicine. China: Mosby, Inc; 2007:291-409.
4St. John’s Wort. In: Natural Medicines [database on the Internet]. Somerville (MA): Therapeutic Research Center; 2017. Available from: https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com. Subscription required to view.
5Savage K, Firth J, Stough C, Sarris J. GABA-modulating phytomedicines for anxiety: A systematic review of preclinical and clinical evidence. Phytotherapy Research 2017; 32(1): 3-18.
6Wilson L. Review of adaptogenic mechanisms: Eleutherococcus senticosus, Panax ginseng, Rhodiola rosea, Schisandra chinensis, and Withania somnifera. Australian Journal of Medicinal Herbalism 2007; 19(3): 126-131.
7Wynn SG, Fougere BJ. Materia Medica. In: Wynn and Fougere, ed. Veterinary Herbal Medicine. China: Mosby, Inc; 2007:459-684.
8Garcia-Gutierrez MS, Navarrete F, Gasparyan A, Austrich-Olivares A, Sala F, Manzanares J. Review- Cannabidiol: A potential new alternative for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and psychotic disorders. Biomolecules 2020;10:1575.
9Pacher P, Batkai S, Kunos G. The endocannabinoid system as an emerging target of pharmacotherapy. Pharmacology Review 2006; 58(3): 389-462.
Dr. Amanda Ardente is a veterinarian and nutritionist, consulting for Animal Necessity, LLC. She resides in Ashland, VA, and is the owner of a nutrition consulting company, Ardente Veterinary Nutrition, LLC.