All animals are happy and healthy by nature. However, modern living can be stressful and make it tricky for animals to experience their natural wellbeing.
Definition of stress
Stress is the consequence of the failure of an organism — human or other animal — to respond adequately to mental, emotional, or physical demands, whether actual or imagined. (Hans Selye, 1956)
When an animal perceives a threat the natural response is called the stress-response (also called the fight-or-flight response). In natural environments the stress-response has an important purpose. When threatened, the stress-response provides animals with the means to be focused and alert, ready for emergency action. Involving the whole animal, mind and body, this built-in safety feature ensures an animal responds quickly and effectively to the threat, and helps ensure their survival.
However, if stress continues to be present over an extended period it can be detrimental to an animal’s health. Long-term stress, even at low levels, results in animals being unable to fully relax. The resulting anxiety and nervous tension can lead to a range of disorders affecting an animal’s mood, physiological functioning and behaviour.
What experiences are perceived as stressful and how the stress manifests is influenced by many factors. These factors vary from species to species, and individual to individual. For example, a cat may be stressed by neighbourhood cats coming into the garden, a new baby in the home, or vet visits. A dog may be stressed by being left alone, thunderstorms or kennel stays. The cat may show it is stressed by urinating inappropriately in the home, compulsive over-grooming, or developing cystitis. The dog may manifest stress with diarrhoea, aggressive behaviour, or skin allergies.
Herbs that have an effect on the nervous system have traditionally been called Nervines. Nervines are usually further categorised into Nervine Relaxants that relax the nervous system; Nervine Stimulants that stimulate the nervous system; and Nervine Tonics that strengthen, nourish and restore the nervous system.
Modern science can now explain many of the effects of Nervines. Research into the functioning of nerves at a molecular level has led to the discovery that a number of important chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) can be influenced by herbs. These chemical messengers play different roles in the healthy functioning of the central nervous system.
The neurotransmitter that is primarily responsible for relaxing the nervous system is called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric-acid). A number of nervine relaxant herbs have now been shown to promote the activity of this important chemical messenger. Herbs like Chamomile, Passionflower, Valerian and Withania all support GABA function and help to relax the nervous system.
The herbs with relaxant (GABAergic) effects have an important role to play in stress-related behaviours and illness in animals. When used appropriately, these herbs can ease the symptoms of stress by helping to relax the nervous system. Relaxation, mind and body, is essential for an animal to be restored to health and normal, balanced functioning.
In animals suffering with stress-related disorders herbs are best combined with other stress-busting strategies. Touch therapies, acupuncture and massage have a role to play. Depending on the individual, relaxation can be further supported by enriching their environment, providing companionship, encouraging play, regular exercise and a wholesome diet. An integrated, holistic approach and the support of a qualified animal behaviourist will help you understand your animal’s individual needs and how best to meet them.
Important: Always consult your veterinarian if your animal is on medication, pregnant, lactating or undergoing surgery before using herbs.