Which of the following scenarios applies to you?
- The groomer has labelled your dog a troublemaker
- During a thunderstorm your dog destroys the house
- On a road trip your ears ring from the incessant barking
- None! My dog never suffers from anxiety
There are many situations where a desperate dog owner may wonder if sedating their dog might be the solution. But it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to dog sedatives. For example, are over-the-counter medications effective or should you see the vet for something stronger?
Questions about which dog sedatives work best and their safety are good ones. So let’s take a look at what’s available, and their benefits and downsides.
What is a Sedative?
A sedative induces a state of calmness or reduces distress in stressful circumstances. Typically a sedated dog will be sleepy and slow to react to things going on around him.
Sedatives range from mild (the dog is relaxed but able to walk and play) to strong (the dog appears deeply asleep.) However, it should be remembered that sedation is much like sleep, and if disturbed the dog may fight off the effects and wake up.
In practical terms this means you must act quiet and calm around a sedated dog. This is also why sedatives often fail when dogs are fearful of thunder or fireworks, because the noise breaks through the sedatives effect.
Also, dog sedatives don’t work if the dog is already over-anxious. For best effect give the sedative at least an hour before its needed (so an hour before you pack the car for that road trip) so the dog stays calm.
Are Dog Sedatives Safe?
Yes and no.
When carefully selected and given at the correct dose to a fit, healthy animal then dog sedatives are a safe and effective tool. However, choose the wrong product or use it in a sick animal and it could lead to serious complications.
What are the Side Effects of Sedatives?
When your dog is sedated you’ll notice some obvious signs. These are:
- Wobbliness and difficulty walking
- Excessive sleepiness
- The third eyelid (the skin at the eyes’ inner corner) slides across to give a cross-eyed appearance
However, it’s what goes on inside the dog that has the potential for serious problems. This is because sedatives can cause:
- A reduced heart rate
- A fail in blood pressure
- Reduce the number of breaths taken each minute
- A fall in body temperature
- Increase the risk of dehydration
In real terms this means an increased risk of damage to organs such as the kidney, especially if the dog is elderly or sick. This is why strong sedatives are prescription only, so the vet can carefully assess what is safe for that individual.
There are several options available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
- Prescription Medicines
- Over the counter medications
- Herbal or homeopathic remedies
- Other strategies such as Thundershirts or pheromones.
Let’s take a look at what you can expect from each of these.
1 – Prescription Medicines
These are pharmaceutical medications supplied by your veterinarian. They are highly effective but also carry a risk of side effects. The most commonly used are:
- Acepromazine (ACP)
On the plus side it is effective at making animals sleepy. It works for around 8 hours and has an anti-nausea action which is helpful for car sick dogs
On the minus side it can have the exact opposite effect and make some animals hyper-excitable. Neither does it reduce anxiety but merely renders the dog less able to express their fear. This means it’s not ideal for dogs that are terrified of thunder or fireworks
- Diazepam and Propranolol
This is a good combo for fearful dogs. The diazepam makes the dog less worried whilst the propranolol stops the heart rate racing and keeps the dog calmer.
2 – Over the Counter Products
These products are not licensed for use in the dog and therefore it cannot be categorically stated they are safe. However, in fit healthy animals the risks are low, but it’s always up to the pet parent as to whether this is a risk worth taking. Always speak to your vet prior to dosing, to check the medication is appropriate for your pet.
- Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine): An antihistamine used in people to alleviate motion sickness. One of the side effects is sedation, which can be useful for the travelling pet but is unlikely to be enough to stop a fearful dog at the groomer’s from becoming aggressive.
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Nytol): This is another antihistamine with sedative properties as a side effect. It also reduces the need to cough and assists in motion sickness. However, take care when selecting a diphenhydramine product that it does NOT contain other active ingredients, since many of these are toxic to dogs.
- Melatonin: This is a naturally occurring hormone which helps regulate our sleep cycles and used by people to counteract jet lag. Considered a food supplement rather than a pharmaceutical, it can help dogs to rest and sleep, especially if the root cause of their wakefulness is anxiety.
3 – Herbal or Homeopathic Options
- Skullcap and Valerian: These are two medicinal herbs with a sedative action that helps calm hyper-excitable or anxious dogs. Long term use is not advised as in rare cases it’s linked to liver disease, but this is a short term option you may wish to consider during firework season.
- Chamomile: Known traditionally for its calming effect, chamomile contains apigenin and chamazulene, both of which have a mild anti-anxiety action. To dose the dog let him lap a cup of cooled chamomile tea or soak a biscuit in it.
- Rescue Remedy: This contains five flower essences selected for their calming and anti-anxiety benefits. Be sure to use the pet-formulation which is alcohol-free and therefore safe for dogs. Simply place a few drops onto the dog’s tongue when he needs the extra help.
4 – Other Strategies
- Thundershirts: A Thundershirt is a tight-fitting jacket that gives the dog a feeling of being ‘hugged’ which for some is hugely reassuring, boosts confidence, and reduces the need for sedatives.
- Zylkene: This is a nutraceutical, or a food-supplement with a medicinal like benefit. Based on a molecule isolated from milk which acts on the same receptors in the brain as diazepam, and has a naturally calming effect on stressed dogs. The other big advantage is it’s available without prescription.
- Dog Appeasing Pheromone: DAP or Adaptil products give off a synthetic version of a natural hormone that helps dogs feel safe and secure. Use a collar for comfort on the go, or a home diffuser to increase overall well-being.
And finally, dog sedatives have their place but if you regularly reach for them, consider consulting a qualified dog behaviorist in order to get to grips with the root cause of your dog’s anxiety.