By Paula Fitzsimmons
If your dog is terrified during thunderstorms or becomes anxious when left home alone, valerian root may offer relief. It’s an herbal supplement with mild sedative qualities that humans have traditionally used to alleviate insomnia, stress, and anxiety. Integrative veterinarians also recommend it for their anxious canine patients.
Valerian root is not without its risks. You need to watch for side effects, especially if your dog takes other medications or supplements. And because dogs are individuals (just like us), it may not work as well for yours as it does for the pup living down the block.
Before investing in a bottle of valerian root capsules or liquid, it's important to learn the essentials: Are valerian supplements safe? Are there side effects? And do they even work? Our vet experts weigh in on valerian root’s usefulness for treating anxiety in dogs. Of course, you should run any supplements past your own vet before giving it to your canine companion.
The Science Behind Valerian Root
Valerian supplements, available as teas, drops, capsules, and more, are made from Valeriana officinalis, a flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Valerian root is best known for its sedating qualities, and is used to relieve insomnia and anxiety, and control seizures, says Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian with Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners in Sandy Springs, Georgia. It works similarly to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes familiar names like Valium and Xanax.
Researchers aren’t precisely sure how valerian works, but they think it may increase the amount of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. “Valerian root is believed to work via the receptors of the GABA, which blocks nerve transmissions between neurons that stimulate activity. Therefore GABA has a calming effect,” explains Wynn, who is board certified in veterinary nutrition.
According to the NIH, evidence of valerian root’s sedating and anxiety-reducing effects in humans has been inconclusive. And in dogs, studies are non-existent. “All recommendations for the use of valerian root in veterinary medicine are either concluded from human and small mammal studies, or based on anecdotal evidence,” says Dr. Lisa Pinn McFaddin, an integrative veterinarian with Independent Hill Veterinary Clinic in Manassas, Virginia.
Should You Give Your Dog Valerian Root?
Despite the lack of solid evidence, many integrative vets recommend giving dogs valerian root for anxiety, sedation, and improving nighttime sleep, McFaddin says. “Specific conditions in which valerian root may be recommended include noise phobias—including thunderstorms, fireworks, and gunfire—separation anxiety, visits to the veterinary office, travel, on walks with aggressive dogs, and when hosting large groups of people at home.”
Even though safety studies of valerian root for dogs don’t exist, Wynn says that overall, it’s a safe herb. “The American Herbal Products Association publishes a text that rates safety of herbs, and considers valerian safe in all people, including pregnant women.” But dogs aren’t people, she says. “I am aware of no case reports or studies that address safety in pregnant dogs, so I would not advise using it in this group of dogs.”
If you do give your dog valerian root, watch for symptoms like drowsiness or lethargy, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian based in New Jersey. The herb can interact with anesthetics, so it shouldn’t be given within two weeks prior to a procedure. “It may also interact with sedative or anti-epileptic drugs, making them more potent. Anti-fungal drugs, in particular, may have greater side effects when used with valerian.”
Before starting your dog on a regimen, understand that valerian root isn’t guaranteed to provide sufficient relief. “If the pet has anxiety that is bad enough that the pet will cause harm to himself or others, medication may be required,” Morgan says. “If the pet has seizures that cannot be controlled, anti-seizure medication may be warranted.”
Valerian root is not a panacea. “If I have an owner who reports insomnia, I look for a medical problem because this is the likely cause in animals,” Wynn says. “For anxiety, I never recommend an herb or a drug unless the owner understands that they must institute behavior modification methods at the same time.”
How to Give Your Dog Valerian Root
Even though experts consider valerian root to be safe, they do recommend that you contact your vet before giving it to your pet. Aside from the potential for interactions with other drugs and your dog’s individual health issues, dosing can be tricky, and potentially dangerous if administered incorrectly.
“The dose range for the dried herb and tincture is very large and dependent on the dog’s level of anxiety or stress,” McFaddin says. “And a lower dose may be needed if the dog is taking other medication for anxiety or sedation.” According to Veterinary Herbal Medicine, by Wynn and Barbara Fougere, the recommended dose of dried valerian root for a dog is between 1 and 7.5 grams, and for tinctures is between 7 and 15 milliliters.
Still, “None of these doses have been established using clinical trials,” Wynn says. “It’s all guesswork at this point, and only trained herbalists would be expected to start at the right dose.”
Dosing depends on the form of valerian—capsule, drops, or whole-dried root—says Morgan, but generally speaking, “It should be administered three to four times daily in small doses starting a few days before the anxiety-inducing event.” Fresh valerian root is also available, but she says a dosage would be hard to determine.
You can also look at valerian root as just one part of your dog’s treatment plan. “The goal is to improve your dog’s quality of life through reduction of stress and anxiety,” McFaddin says. “In many instances, one herbal or nutritional supplement is not enough. Polypharmacy, the use of multiple lower doses of medications and supplements, may provide the best and safest outcome for your furry family member.”
A valerian root supplement may be a good option for certain anxiety-provoking situations like trips to the vet, thunderstorms, and travel. Be open to incorporating behavioral modification or other herbs, nutritional supplements, and medications in conjunction with the valerian root. Start by discussing supplementation with your dog’s vet and investing in a trusted brand. If used correctly, valerian root may help take the edge off your dog’s anxiety.