Treating Aggression In Dogs With Herbs And Diet

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Cubby is a giant, even by Labrador standards.

He’s got long legs and a giant head.

And he is a very sweet dog… as long as you are not a dog walking in front of his house.

Cubby was adopted as an adult. His previous owner had him since he was a puppy. There was no history of abuse or negligence. He was loved and well taken care of.

He is friendly with dogs he knows, but very protective when he meets other dogs outside of his home. He will attack any dog that approaches the fence or walks by the house.

One time, while on a walk, Cubby’s strength overpowered the dog walker’s, and he managed to escape her grip and attack a neighbor’s small dog on a leash. This unfortunately landed the small dog in the hospital. The dog recovered well, but left many people, including Cubby’s owners quite traumatized. 

They worked with a trainer, but all agreed that Cubby was too strong to be leash walked. Fortunately, they have a nice sized back yard where he can run and play. Unfortunately, there is a very small patch of “side yard” that allows Cubby to see what is happening on the street. 

Keeping Cubby confined to the yard worked for a period of time. However, a few months after the first incident, he somehow escaped from the yard and attacked another dog in the street.

Efforts were made to prevent any possibility of escape from the backyard.

When I first met Cubby for his annual exam, I met a goofy and sweet dog that just wanted to give kisses and get attention. It was almost hard to believe the stories due to his sweet disposition. However, it is not uncommon for some dogs to be good towards people, while bad with other dogs, or vice versa.

His owners described how even in the backyard, if he heard the sound of another dog, he would become a vicious and aggressive attack dog. He would attack the fence and would not respond to his owner’s calls to distract and pull him away.

We decided to try putting Cubby on a Chinese herb that helps decrease dominance aggression in dogs (and cats, and people).

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver is the organ that distributes Chi (energy) and blood to other organs in the body in order to keep them nourished. 

A disruption of this flow leads to a particular pattern of imbalance called Liver Chi stagnation. In this imbalance, energy and emotions are stuck in the middle of the body and are unable to flow normally. This may lead to a variety of physical and/or emotional symptoms, with common emotional changes being anger, irritability or aggression.

When people are irritable, they may also feel discomfort in their abdomen, or liver area, which could be a manifestation of this same imbalance.

Newer research is showing that emotions can have a direct physical impact on our bodies. For example, many of us know that stress can lower immunity. 

What we don’t know much about (and ancient Chinese medicine discovered thousands of years ago), is how physical changes in the body can lead to emotional disturbances. In other words, having a particular type of physical imbalance in your body can cause you to become more fearful, anxious or angry. 

When energy, or as ancient Chinese medicine calls it, “chi”, cannot move properly through the liver, a person or animal may develop aggression and irritability. There is likely a corresponding physical change that happens in the body along with this pattern, such as bile not flowing properly through the liver. 

We measure damage to the liver with an enzyme called ALT. This is not the most sensitive test. In my career I have seen dogs and cats with liver cancer that never had any changes to their ALT. 

I have noticed, however, that aggressive dogs and cats are much more likely to have an increased ALT than non-aggressive pets (more studies are needed to look at this more closely). 

That being said, not all animals with liver chi stagnation will have changes in their bloodwork. Because this test is not very sensitive, I don’t rely on it to decide whether an animal has liver chi stagnation or not. I judge primarily based on behavior and other indicators of this imbalance. 

Chinese medicine often looks at the tongue and pulse to give us specific information about chi and blood flow through the body. Many dogs with liver chi stagnation have a purple or lavender tinge to their tongue especially in the center and their pulse will have a taut and wiry feel to it. 

Most dogs with liver chi stagnation are outwardly very healthy animals with no signs of illness. They have good energy and appetite. But Chinese patterns of imbalance can be very subtle, and even something like “aggression” can be a symptom of imbalance.

Now, back to Cubby:

We started Cubby on a Chinese herb made by the veterinary company Jing Tang Herbals, called, somewhat appropriately, “Liver Happy.” His owners gave him 1 tsp of this herb twice a day with his meals.

Within 2 months, his owners reported back to me, that he is a completely different dog. He no longer attacks the fence or becomes a vicious predator when other dogs walk by the front of the house. He will sometimes still bark once or twice, but a simple calling of his name will distract him and pull him away from the fence.  

Cubby is not the only dog that has responded to this treatment. I have witnessed dozens of dogs and cats become less aggressive after taking herbs and supplements that address liver chi stagnation.

Owners have reported that they are more mellow and less reactive, and oftentimes the aggression goes away altogether. Since these treatments do not work on the brain or nervous system, there is no lethargy or sedation.

The most amazing thing about treating liver chi stagnation, is that in many cases, the effects can be permanent. Most animals do not have to be on this herb for more than a few months. This is different than treating with a psychotropic drug, such as Prozac, where the positive effects are only present when the animal is taking the medication.

All of that being said, there are a few caveats:

1) While I have seen positive changes in many animals on this type of treatment, I would still estimate that the success rate is about 75%. Not all aggressive animals will respond. If there is no response to treatment after one month, then I stop the herbs. This is not always a miracle cure, but it is a safe treatment that it is generally worth trying. 

2) Because not all animals will respond to the treatment, it is always recommended to take all necessary precautions when dealing with an aggressive animal. I still highly recommend working with a behaviorist or a trainer in order to achieve maximum results, and to find ways to manage or eliminate unwanted behaviors. However, adding supplements to decrease the possible underlying physical causes of aggression can also be beneficial.

3) Sometimes a sudden change in behavior in an animal may be due to a thyroid or other disease such as cancer. Some animals will become more irritable when they do not feel well. Always consult with your veterinarian and perform all recommended tests if there is any sudden change in your pet’s behavior.

4) And lastly, I need to make a distinction between two types of aggression: fear aggression vs dominance aggression. The treatment I am outlining below, and in particular when using the Chinese herb – Liver Happy, is specifically geared towards dominance aggression. 

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish aggression stemming from fear versus true aggression. I will cover this topic in more detail in future blog posts. However, what I have found is that if you treat an animal with the “wrong” treatment, you will often see a worsening of their behavior. So a fearful animal will become more fearful, and an aggressive animal will become more aggressive.

The good news is that stopping the treatment stops the change in emotions/ behavior, AND, it also gives you useful information. Now we just reverse the treatment and this often leads to our desired result.   

So what is the treatment for liver chi stagnation?

The two formulas that I have seen the best results with are only available through veterinarians or medical practitioners. 

1) Jing Tang Liver Happy herb: this formula is based on the traditional Chinese medicine herb: Xiao Yao Wan. It is sold by Jing Tang herbals.Ask your holistic veterinarian about this formula. 

2) Standard Process Livaplex. This is a human based formula made by the company Standard Process. While there is a dog specific formula, SP Canine Hepatic Support, (that works well for decreasing ALT), I see better results for decreasing aggression specifically with Livaplex. Make sure that you are giving a high enough dose to see an effect, and again, contact your holistic veterinarian for more guidance on administering this product.

3) For cats, I have often seen good results with Standard Process feline hepatic support and the flower essences, Beech and Willow.

In addition to these supplements, there are other herbs and foods that can assist in decreasing liver chi stagnation. I don’t usually rely on these as sole treatment options, but they work well as supportive treatments. In a mild case, they may be enough on their own.

1) Dandelion root: This is a gentle bile stimulant that helps to move bile through the liver and gallbladder. Do not confuse this with Dandelion greens which are used more for their diuretic effects.

2) Cooked Beets: red beets (as opposed to poor quality sugar beets often included in dog food) are also a powerful detoxifier and liver cleanser. If you don’t want to deal with cooking, there is also a powder version of beets for dogs available here.

3) Artichoke hearts: Artichoke is also a bile mover and stimulant. These are conveniently available in jars of water, canned or frozen if you don’t want to be cooking artichokes all the time.

There are likely many more treatments for this imbalance, however these are the most common ones that I have used.

** Milk Thistle and Denamarin ** A quick note here about Milk Thistle which is the first herb most people think of when it comes to liver health. While Milk Thistle is great for protecting liver cells from damage, it has minimal effects on moving or stimulating bile. It is therefore not an effective treatment option for this particular imbalance.

The veterinary version that includes the active ingredients in Milk Thistle (and SAM-e) is called Denamarin. This is also not an effective treatment for this particular imbalance (it does help however with protecting the liver).***

Are there any negative side effects?

When adding any new foods or supplements, ALWAYS start with a smaller dose first. Introduce any new food item or supplement gradually. This will allow the body to adjust and dramatically decreases any chance of a negative reaction. 

The most common side effects are going to be digestive upset: vomiting and diarrhea. These reactions are rare and happen more commonly if the supplement is introduced too quickly. Most symptoms resolve on their own when the supplement is discontinued.

When it comes to adding the new foods to the diet, use common sense. For a small dog, add a tiny amount of beet or artichoke heart to their meals. No more than 5% of their meal. For a larger dog, you can give a slightly larger amount.

The most serious (and rare) side effect of any bile moving supplement or herb is gallbladder or bile duct obstruction. I have used these herbs and supplements for over 8 years now and have never seen this happen, however in theory it could happen. Fortunately nature tends to safeguard against obstructions (many bile moving foods also liquefy the bile), but as you can imagine, giving a sudden large amount of a bile mover could result in an obstruction. If your pet becomes lethargic and ill after any of these foods or supplements, see your veterinarian immediately.

Now back to liver chi stagnation…

It is fascinating to me that you can resolve aggression in many animals with an herb or supplement. And like I discuss in other places in this blog, animals do not have a traditional placebo effect. They do not know that they are receiving an herb that is going to make them more mellow and less easily triggered. 

If no other changes are made at the same time, and a behavior is lessened or eliminated with the introduction of a new supplement, then that is a pretty remarkable thing. This could also have some pretty large implications.

Thousands of animals are euthanized each year for being too aggressive. Perhaps a combination of herbal/ diet therapy along with training and behavior modification could have more effective and lasting results than just training alone. 

And at the end of the day, perhaps we could all use a little liver chi support in our lives… 

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