Summer—and in particular the Fourth of July—can be a stressful time for dogs and cats. Between parties, barbeques and fireworks, there are lots of new sounds, smells, sights and activities that can cause even the calmest pet to become anxious.
If your dog or cat becomes stressed during the summer, it may be time to consider calmatives to make the warmer months easier for everyone. When administered correctly and as part of an overall plan to reduce stress, calmatives can make your pet feel better about changes in her life.
Visit any Mud Bay, and we’ll be happy to help you find the exact calmative that will match your pet’s needs. But for people who’d like to know more about calmatives in general, we talked to Learning and Development Specialist Maggie Nelson. She has plenty of personal experience using calmatives to help her pets, and she’s also helped a lot of Mud Bay customers find calmatives that will work for their lives.
MB: What is a calmative, and what does it do?
MN: Stress affects our pets in a lot of different ways, and it has a lot of causes, some sudden, some gradual. For dogs or cats who are frightened by loud noises or stressed out by changes in routine, calmatives are one way to help take the edge off of stress as we help our pets through a tough time.
You can pretty much tell what a calmative is from the name. It’s an item that’s used to help keep an animal calm. But the way I usually describe it is a natural calmative is an item that contains herbs or other ingredients that are intended to reduce the symptoms of stress. This doesn’t mean that they’ll cure your animal of anxiety or fix behavioral problems. Instead, calmatives work to help reduce your animal’s experiences of stress, so they don’t feel it quite as strongly. You can think of it like a cushion that helps reduce the impact of what your animal experiences.
Just like stress itself varies, both in cause and how it’s exhibited, calmatives vary a bunch, too. Some work quickly, and over the short-term. These are great for vet visits, trips to the groomer, and other one-off events. Some have a very slow, gentle impact, and work better for helping our pets adjust to a gradual change.
A calmative might have ingredients that are very recognizable like chamomile, which a lot of us drink to relax and to calm an anxious tummy. That works the same way for dogs and cats. Valerian root is another common one, often used to help relax the nerves. Less common items, like mushrooms and Chinese herbal formulas, help gradually support the body’s ability to deal with stress and feel at home in its environment.
MB: How do you go about choosing between different calmatives?
MN: For me, the biggest thing is to start by taking a look at the cause of your pet’s stress. Are you trying to prepare for stress related to a very specific situation, like going to the vet or the Fourth of July? Or do you have more consistent behavioral problems related to stress, like separation anxiety?
Starting there helps determine how much help you need, whether from a calmative or another soothing tactic. It also helps you form a baseline for how much you’re able to do on your own and when you should confer with your vet.
We have a tool in our stores that’s designed to help us choose between different calmatives based on how long it takes them to have an effect, the philosophy behind the product’s makeup, and how you administer the calmative itself. Those three factors really help us break down which one to suggest in a different circumstance. If you’ve got a very picky cat, chances are pills or powdered herbs won’t be as helpful to you, so a treat or tincture would be an easier route to take.
If we’re talking about anticipating a stressful event like the Fourth of July, your best bet is to prepare a game plan in advance, including environmental and behavioral techniques as well as calmatives to make your pet’s experience more relaxing. Many long-term calmatives, like air-based pheromones, take a long time to have an effect, so including them early on is very helpful. Testing certain techniques in advance helps your pet get comfortable and lets you know how they’ll react to them. For example, having a dog try on a Thundershirt for short increments with lots of treats when they’re already calm builds a positive association, increasing the likelihood it’ll be successful.
MB: How do you go about administering calmatives?
MN: It’s going to depend entirely on what format it takes. Once you’ve determined the cause and level of anxiety, then you can decide what types of calmatives work best for you and your pet, being aware of any pickiness and how quickly you expect a calmative to take effect.
Ease of use is why so many people go for treat-based calmatives. They’re much easier to get a cat or dog to take than a pill, especially if they’re already stressed out. The drawback with treats is that they’re more processed, and you don’t get as high a dosage. So some treat-based calmatives suggest you give the minimum dose, wait thirty to forty minutes, then give a second dose if needed.
In cases where anxiety happens in response to specific events that you can predict, it’s also best to start your calming techniques about an hour before the event will happen. Calmatives are often more effective in advance for just this reason—it’s way to start with a calmer state early on than it is to roll back anxiety that’s already happening.
My dog was very scared of loud noises, so on the day of the Fourth, I’d start my calming plan early. Take her for a nice long walk and then give her a bone as I put on her Thundershirt for part of the evening, so she’s tired and has that nice release of endorphins from chewing. With cats, you can give them a nice round of playtime to let out some energy, then a good round of grooming for relaxing social interaction. A well-rounded set of techniques is incredibly helpful.
MB: When should you consider talking to your veterinarian about ways to help your cat or dog overcome stress?
MN: When anxiety and stress-related behaviors get to the point where you no longer know how to manage symptoms, or the symptoms are interfering with your daily lives, it’s time to talk to your veterinarian. Keep in mind that anxiety and stress can often cause behaviors like aggression or separation anxiety, so behavior problems may benefit from help from your vet.
Any time you don’t know how to address a specific behavior, it’s a really good idea to talk to an expert. A vet may be able to recommend a local trainer you could go to modify behaviors. Sometimes behaviors we find undesirable are the only way a dog or cat knows how to communicate their distress, so working with them to redirect and improve their experience rather than simply telling them no is very important. You could also talk with your vet about a backup plan in case symptoms flare up.
Your veterinarian can also help you decide if your dog or cat could benefit from prescription medications. Medications like sedatives are often prescribed for a temporary basis to help a dog or cat. However, just like with calmatives, a sedative can’t fix or solve the root of the problem. Sedatives are intended to reduce how your dog or cat reacts to a stressor, but it’s important to consider working with your dog or cat to make their overall reactions less intense. Making time for training on a regular basis can reduce negative reactions over time and make the rest of your dog or cat’s life a little bit better.***
Learning and Development Specialist Maggie Nelson has been a Muddy for four years. When she’s not working on new courses to help educate and delight Mud Bay staff, she’s hanging out with her three male cats, Az, Malfoy and Björn, or painting and gaming at home.