If you drink coffee on a regular basis, you’ll know that certain food and drinks can make you feel energetic, while others have a calming effect on the body, like chamomile tea. If you struggle with insomnia, a dietician may advocate including foods like tuna, low fat yogurt or banana in your diet. These foods contain good levels of tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce feel-good and sleep hormones like serotonin and melatonin. Just as foods have an effect on us humans, they can also have a stimulating or calming effect on our canine and feline friends.

Anxiety in pets

Some pets are highly stressed or anxious in almost all situations, while others show signs of anxiety at specific times, like a trip to the vet or during a thunderstorm.

Dr Roselle Hartwigsen, a complementary veterinarian, certified veterinary acupuncturist and TCVM (traditional Chinese veterinary medicine) practitioner at Bergbos Animal Clinic in Rustenburg, says that anxiety is a complex disorder and there are many reasons why some pets are more anxious than others.

The anxiety may be breed-related, or perhaps the dog was poorly socialised as a puppy or suffered a traumatic event. “Dogs who are not allowed to be dogs and exhibit natural dog behaviour tend to be more anxious,” says Dr Hartwigsen. “For example, toy breeds who are carried around in purses and never allowed to walk around freely outside or socialise with other dogs develop some form of anxiety over time.”

When treating anxiety in anxious pets, Dr Hartwigsen says it is important to diagnose what kind of anxiety the pet is suffering from and the possible cause.

So how can you help your anxious pet? Work with a professional you trust.

  • See your veterinarian for a check-up to rule out any medical conditions that can cause anxiety, like heart failure or liver disease. You can choose to see a conventional vet or a complementary vet. Medical conditions must be considered first, before moving on to other therapies.
  • Ask your vet to assess your pet’s diet. Diet should be part of the anxiety treatment plan – whatever the cause. “Diet changes are an absolute must and herbal supplements are gold,” says Dr “Most anxiety can be managed when a holistic approach is used. Antidepressants, tranquilisers and other pharma chemicals are an absolute last resort.”
  • See a qualified veterinary behaviourist who can teach your pet (and you) how to cope and relax in stressful situations.

 Food as medicine

Dr Hartwigsen explains that as a general rule, a healthy gut will result in a healthy mind and body, and that an important hormone for keeping pets (and people) happy is serotonin. “Ninety-five percent of the body’s serotonin is in the gut and absorbed into the body by the gut lining,” she explains. “Keeping the gut lining and the microbe population in the gut healthy is the key to optimal serotonin production and absorption. High levels of serotonin result in decreased levels of anxiety.”

Diet options

What diets can assist anxious pets? When feeding for health, a balanced meal is always the most important objective. The diet must include a variety of ingredients to provide the nutrients your pet needs for optimal health. Ask your vet for guidance, then choose the one that best suits your pet’s needs.

 Raw food diet: “Biologically appropriate raw diets made from GMO-free and organic ingredients are gold when feeding to reduce anxiety,” says Dr Hartwigsen. “Look for meals containing serotonin-stimulating foods.” These include oatmeal, turkey and brassica vegetables.

Balanced food therapy diet: A TCVM veterinarian will prescribe a balanced diet as part of food therapy, after your pet is thoroughly assessed and the cause of the anxiety identified. “Usually the recipes will need to be home-cooked and will include herbal formulas to help reduce anxiety,” explains Dr Hartwigsen.

Prescription diet: Your vet may suggest one of the specially formulated diets for pets with anxiety problems. Examples are Hill’s Prescription Diet i/d Stress Canine, Hill’s Prescription Diet c/d Feline Urinary Stress, or Royal Canin Canine Calm or Feline Calm.

Commercial food diet: Purchase the best quality food you can afford, then add supplements and herbs to your pet’s diet to assist with the anxiety.

Supplements: Speak to your complementary vet about an omega 3 oil supplement. Adding omega 3 oils to the diet will reduce inflammation in the gut lining and help with the absorption of serotonin into the bloodstream. L-Tryptophan, a building block for serotonin, can also be given as a supplement and is available as a paste or tablet.

Herbs: Dr Hartwigsen suggests the following herbal supplements for pets with anxiety:

Valerian root improves GABA production in the brain, the neurotransmitters that regulate anxiety. It can also relieve insomnia and anxiety and creates an overall calming effect. The herb can be given in capsule form or as a powder added to food.

Lavender increases the serotonin levels in the blood. It can also help to lower blood pressure and has a sedative and relaxing effect. Purchase lavender-infused water or tea and add it to your pet’s water. You can also make your own by using dried lavender flowers from your garden. Add one teaspoon of flowers to a litre of water and leave to stand overnight. Add to your pet’s water bowl in the morning. Lavender can also be used as aromatherapy, especially in stressful situations like travelling or when visiting the vet.

Chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties by blocking inflammatory messengers in the body. This causes sedation and relaxation. Chamomile enhances peaceful sleep and aids in digestive upsets. Chamomile can be given as a tea or added to drinking water, and you can also soak a treat in chamomile.


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