Melatonin is a natural hormone nutrient that is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan by the pineal gland in the back of the brain. Melatonin also occurs in small amounts in a variety of foods. In the body, melatonin appears to regulate sleep/wake cycles, support normal immune function, and protect cells from free radical damage.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring substance produced by the pineal gland located in the brains of mammals. It is, by definition, a hormone and has been found to be involved in circadian rhythms – those inner cycles that tell all mammals when to sleep and when to wake. In recent years melatonin has been marketed for people as a “natural” aid to sleeping.
Most of the research on melatonin has focused on its roles in maintaining normal sleep/wake rhythms. The perception of daylight in the eyes is a signal for the pineal gland to inhibit melatonin synthesis and release. At night or in the dark, the body’s melatonin production rises. The rise in plasma melatonin is thought to be responsible for bringing on sleep. Nocturnal melatonin production is highest in children and begins to decline from adolescence on until it is virtually absent in the elderly.
Melatonin supports normal immune function by helping maintain the activity of circulating natural killer cells. It also has been found to function as an antagonist for stress-induced immunosuppression. Melatonin is considered a potent antioxidant that enters all body cells to help prevent free radical damage. In the brain, melatonin is perhaps the most important physiological antioxidant. Due to its lipid and water-soluble properties, it can freely cross the blood-brain barrier.
In vitro studies show that melatonin is more effective than glutathione in scavenging toxic hydroxyl radicals, and also more efficient than vitamin E in neutralizing peroxyl radicals which can induce DNA damage.
Melatonin has been found to be helpful when used with dogs who have “thunder-phobia,” other noise-related reactions and other stressful situations. Melatonin has been used effectively to reduce seizures in dogs that seize between 11 PM and 6 AM. Quite a few members of our Canine Epilepsy community have also discovered that it seems to lessen the freque3ncy and/or severity of seizures at other times at the day.
An article in the May 2000 issue of The Whole Dog Journal is an article on melatonin and the positive results with noise and thunder-phobic dogs. The article begins on page 3 and is titled “Bring in Da Noise.” The article has comments by Dr. Dodman and Dr. Linda Aronson.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman and his colleague Dr. Linda Aronson of the behavioral section at Tufts New England Veterinary Medical Center had been looking for something that would help reduce canine thunderstorm phobias when they discovered research papers on the effect of melatonin. Research indicated a positive effect of melatonin on dogs that continually lick their flanks as well as a calming effect on chickens in overcrowded conditions.
Drs. Dodman and Aronson wondered whether melatonin might work on noise phobic dogs. The first dog to try it was Dr. Aronson’s own Bearded Collie who had severe thunder phobia after lightning struck very near her house. The effect of the melatonin was dramatic. The dog simply stopped being afraid instead of tearing around the house and digging at the carpets. The melatonin did not put her to sleep, she stayed awake and alert — just not bothered by the thunder.
Drs. Dodman and Aronson then gave the melatonin to other dogs and produced the same result. Melatonin worked for other noise fears (one dog was afraid of songbirds) as well, including fireworks!
Another article with references to the use of melatonin in dogs can be found in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Volume 215, No. 1 July 1999. “Vet Med Today: Animal Behavior Case of the Month” was written by Linda Aronson, DVM, MA; from the Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, MA.
The following is an excerpt from an email by Dr. Aronson: “To treat thunderstorm phobia, I use a dose of 3 mg for a 35 – 100 lb dog. Smaller dogs get 1.5 mg, and larger dogs may get 6 mg. The dose is give either at first evidence of thunderstorm – dog becomes agitated, distant rumbling of thunder, etc. or prophylactically before the owner leaves the house when thunderstorms are predicted. Dos may be repeated up to 3 times daily. The latter may be used as a dose for animals with more generalized stress related disorders.”
You can give your dog melatonin before you leave for the day if thunderstorms are predicted because it remains effective for several hours. Otherwise, give it when thunder seems imminent. Give melatonin immediately when you see your dog becoming agitated. If your dog has autoimmune disease or severe liver or kidney disease, check with your veterinarian before giving melatonin.
Melatonin is sold in capsules and tablets in health food stores, pharmacies and some supermarkets. It is sold in doses as low as 200 micrograms (mcg.). For most dogs, Aronson prescribes 3 milligrams (mg.) In a few cases, dogs weighing over one hundred pounds needed 6 mg. but that was unusual. Aronson usually gives dogs that weigh less than 30 pounds, 1.5 mg. Although they have not treated any phobic really tiny dogs, Aronson would reduce the dosage further for them.
It’s important to read the labels on melatonin bottles very carefully. Some are mixed with herbs or nutrients that may not be safe for dogs. Make sure you buy the correct dosage for your size dog. Remember, there are 1,000 micrograms (mcg.) in a milligram (mg.) so a 200 mcg. pill contains only 1/15 of the amount recommended for a large dog.
Because melatonin is not regulated by any federal agency, the quality varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. If an inferior product is administered, it may not be effective in calming a dog whereas a higher quality product might be. We cannot recommend any particular brand that is best, so the best course of action is purchase the product from a supplier you trust and believe to carry better quality. Some holistic veterinarians sell melatonin and their products might be better quality.
Melatonin capsules, as provided by Douglas Laboratories, contain 3 mg of highest purity melatonin produce under strict Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards and are available at Misty Pines in Regular and Prolonged Release formulas.