Anti-anxiety dog meds made from tree bark studied in Ontario

Researchers from the University of Ottawa claim they've found a successful botanical anti-anxiety medication for dogs. All they need is vines from Costa Rica, and sycamore bark harvested from Windsor.

Components of medication include vines from Costa Rica and sycamore bark from Windsor, Ont.

University of Windsor students harvest bark from a sycamore tree on campus. They're assisting with a University of Ottawa project to make botanical anti-anxiety medication for dogs. (University of Windsor / www.uwindsor.ca)

Researchers from the University of Ottawa claim they've found a successful botanical anti-anxiety medication similar to Valium — for dogs.

All the researchers need are vines from Costa Rica and sycamore bark harvested from trees in Windsor, Ont.   

"We've compared dogs treated for anxiety with Valium and we found our compound acts similarly," Tony Durst, a chemistry professor at the University of Ottawa, said in a phone interview. "It acts almost as well as Valium but it has none of the side-effects [Valium] is known for."  

Valium can cause confusion, hallucinations, hyperactivity, agitation, aggression, hostility, drowsiness or muscle weakness in humans.

Durst said dogs experience mental-health issues, the same way humans do.

Tony Durst, a professor at the University of Ottawa, holds the vines used in making a new canine anti-anxiety medication. (Submitted)

"Dogs are known to be anxious, among other things," Durst said. "When thunderstorms arrive, when their owners leave them at home all day, they show anxiety."

Dogs, piglets and rats all tested with the compound made from vines and sycamore tree bark showed no harmful side-effects from the medication and appeared much calmer after ingesting the compound, Durst said.

"In most cases, the dog becomes much more calm, doesn't hide under the bed or hide in a closet, but sits comfortably next to you."  

Durst is in negotiations with an American distributor to have the medication in veterinarian clinics by next spring.  

Kelly French, an animal behaviourist in Windsor, said dogs often express their anxiety in ways that humans interpret as bad behaviour — like ripping up your couch. 

"Anxiety plays a big role in dogs. People don't realize that," French said. "They don't think, 'my dog is anxious,' because a dog can't tell you, 'I'm freaking out right now.'

"Most of the behavioural problems I see are related to anxiety and fear. The dog is usually fearful, nervous, shy, trying to cope with a situation."

French said some dogs are given Prozac

As more sycamore bark is needed to produce the medication, Durst got in touch with Siyaram Pandey, a chemistry professor at the University of Windsor. Sycamore trees are plentiful on the Windsor campus. Pandey and his students collected more than 40 kilograms of bark this week.

"The bark naturally falls off the trees, so there is no danger to the sycamores," Pandey said.

Pandey said the shedded bark is like paper at first, before it becomes powder.

Possible human use

The goal is to get the botanical anti-anxiety medication approved for human tests by Health Canada, Durst said.

He hopes the product can eventually be used to help people experiencing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We've made an application to Health Canada for permission to do human safety studies," Durst said. "We fully believe that based on the data we have, a human safety study will be very successful."

With files from the CBC's Aadel Haleem

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