The root of the plant, Valeriana officialis has been used for centuries for stress-related conditions in humans. Studies have shown a positive effect in people suffering from mild anxiety and insomnia (1,2). It’s widely used in pets – but does it actually work?
How does it work?
The herb is believed to produce a calming effect in the brain by increasing the amount of a compound called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This mode of action is similar to a group of drugs called benzodiazepenes, which can reduce anxiety and have a sedative effect.
Why is controlling stress important?
Pets can suffer from stress-related conditions in their daily lives. For cats, visitors, loud noises, antagonistic relationships, overcrowding or confinement may be stressful. Individual animals can find specific situations and challenges stressful. Pets have unique characters, some are affected by unusual phobias or fears. Dogs are often stressed by social isolation, loud or unexpected noises, travel, other pets and unfamiliar environments. Vets who practice herbal medicine use valerian alongside other treatments in dogs and cats with conditions related to stress. Oral and inhaled preparations are also available over the counter for pets in the UK.
Are there any side effects?
Valerian can make animals drowsy and it will interact with certain medications. Care should be taken if your pet is receiving anti-epileptic or anti-fungal medicines. The treatment should be discontinued before anaesthesia or sedation. Ideally, contact your vet and discuss the use of valerian before beginning treatment.
Cats don’t cope well with lots of drugs – do they respond the same way?
Cats are stimulated by valerian. One study showed that 50% of cats exhibited euphoric behaviour when a valerian plant was introduced to their environment. This is similar to the reaction seen with catnip(3). Half the cats became excited and playful, rolling in the leaves, sniffing, chewing and rubbing their cheeks and chin on them. The chemical compound actinidine is believed to be the attractant, this chemical acts like a feline pheromone. Vets who use traditional medicine may use valerian in cases of stress-related over-grooming, fearful behaviour or feline interstitial cystitis.
But does it work?
There is little research on the efficacy of valerian on stress-related disease in cats.
There is more research on the use of valerian in dogs. Canine behavioural problems are common, one study suggested they occur in up to 90% of dogs (4), stress is often identified as an underlying cause. None of the studies have looked at physiological parameters such as heart rate, breathing rate and hormone concentrations. Instead, behavioural signs of stress were observed, signs such as lip licking, sighing, panting, trembling, recurrent yawning, circling and hyperactivity. The results of the research are conflicting.
One study suggested that valerian was effective at reducing activity and vocalising in a rescue centre setting (5). Dogs were seen to rest and relax more when a scent cloth covered in valerian was introduced to their kennel. Valerian is the main ingredient in Pet Remedy manufactured by Unex Designs Ltd. Pet remedy is marketed as a treatment for stress and anxiety in pets. Promotional material supplied by Unex Designs Ltd (6) detail studies that Pet remedy reduces excitability and improves behaviour of stressed pets.
However, industry-funded research has been found to have a significant effect on positive results(7) and none of the studies were peer-reviewed or published. This study showed no statistical difference in the frequency of anxiety related behaviours when Pet remedy was used (8).
There is one study suggesting it may be of benefit in rabbits (11), but this has not yet been replicated by other research so we’ll wait and see.
So what else can we do to help manage stress in our pets?
Assessing the stressor in the pet’s environment may mean that you can avoid stressors or commence a programme of behavioural modification or densensitisation. For example, cats can suffer from FIC or feline interstitial cystitis. This is a condition exacerbated by stress. MEMO (multi-modal environmental modification) is an effective treatment for this condition. MEMO involves assessing the relationships within the home, food and water bowl placement, litter tray placement and number as well as provision of hiding places.
Changing the environment to reduce stress usually alleviates their physical symptoms of FIC. In canine behaviour treatment, behavioural modification with pharmaceutical treatment was found to be much more effective than the use of medication alone (9,10). Reducing exposure to triggers and carrying out desensitisation will be effective in managing stress. Physical ailments should always be considered and ruled out before behavioural treatment is instituted.
The bottom line: does valerian actually reduce stress?
There is little evidence that valerian will be effective against stress in dogs or cats. Further research would be helpful in informing a decision to use the herbal medicine. Consulting your veterinary surgeon or a qualified behaviourist is likely to be effective.
Valerian is unlikely to harm your pet on its own, although it can make a dog drowsy and interact with other medication. Depending on the cause of a pet’s stress a veterinary and behavioural consultation may lead to a more effective means of stress management.
You may also be interested in;
- Is my cat anxious?
- Why Does My Dog Follow Me Everywhere?
- Can I give my dog paracetamol?
- Can I give painkillers to my dog?
- Can dogs and cats get stomach ulcers?
References and Reading:
- Cropley M, Cave Z. Ellis J and Middleton R.W. Effect of kava and valerian on human physiological and psychological responses to mental stress assessed under laboratory conditions. (2002). Phytother. Res. 2002, 16, 23–27.
- Wheatley, D. Stress-induced insomnia treated with kava and valerian: Singly and in combination. (2001) Hum. Psychopharmacol. Clin. Exp. 16:353–356
- Bol S, Caspers J, Buckingham L, Anderson-Shelton GD, Ridgway C, Buffington CAT, Schulz S and Bunnik EM. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria (2017) BMC Veterinary Research 13:70
- Vacalopoulos A, Anderson R.K. Canine behavior problems reported by clients in a study of veterinary hospitals. (1993) Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 37:84
- Bink J, Taylor S, Wills A, and Montrose T. The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter. (2018) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 202:69-76
- Unex Designs Ltd. (2014) Statistical analysis of a new Animal Behaviour Centre dog trial for Pet Remedy: final analysis – three-month follow-up. Select Statistical Services, Exeter, Devon. Document supplied by Unex Designs Ltd.
- Wareham K J, Hyde RM, Grindlay D, Brennan, ML and Dean RS. Sponsorship bias and quality of randomised controlled trials in veterinary medicine. (2017) BMC Veterinary Research 13: 234.
- S Taylor and Madden J. The effect of Pet Remedy on the behaviour of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). (2016) Applied Ethology and Welfare of Animals. 6 (11):64
- Madsen, E.A.; Perrson, T. Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies (Canis lupis familiaris): The effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs. (2012) Anim. Cogn. 16 :233
- Palestrini, C.; Minero, M.; Cannas, S.; Rossi, E.; Frank, D. Video analysis of dogs with separation anxiety-related disorders. (2010) Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 124: 61–67.
- Unwin SL, Saunders RA, Blackwell EJ, Rooney NJ (2020) A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial investigating the value of Pet Remedy in ameliorating fear of handling of companion rabbits, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 36, pp.54-64