(Original Post Date: 6/23/14)
BANGS, BOOMS & FLASHES OF LIGHTNING
How to help storm phobic dogs
Spring time is here and storm season is upon us creating havoc for storm phobic dogs and their people. During storm and noise events dogs can display a wide variety of symptoms from trembling, panting and pacing to outright panic and damage to both the animal and their owner property. Dogs that experience intense responses to noises and storms need our help to ease their suffering. Helping these dogs requires a multi-modal approach encompassing environmental management, behavior modification, pheromones (Adaptil) and often medication.
Knowing more details about the problem can help target the appropriate interventions. Dogs may be bothered by different components of a storm; wind, thunder, lightning, rain or all parts of the storm. Useful information should include an accurate detailing of presenting signs, their onset, intensity, duration and how quickly and easily the dog returns to a baseline calm emotional state after the event is over. Storm sensitivities and phobias should be verified by an accurate description of events- what exactly are the behaviors the dog exhibits and what events cause the worst signs? Whenever possible try to rate the response on a numerical scale; a one for low level responses like quietly trembling under the bed and a five for complete terror; racing around the home destroying objects. This information allows the veterinarian to determine which treatments to prescribe, gauge treatment responses, and to monitor and adjust the treatment regime for each individual patient. Dogs that suffer from storm and noise reactivity may also find being home alone challenging and suffer from concurrent separation anxiety. A diagnosis of recording when the dog is home alone on a regular or work related departure. If separation anxiety is present, both the noise and storm anxiety and the separation anxiety should be treated for best control and resolution of signs.
An important first step is to create a calm, safe place for dogs experiencing noise and storm sensitivities to be during the event. Pet owners should identify a quiet, dark, safe location where the dog can go during noise events, perhaps even one the dog selects. A room with no windows may diminish the noise or the ability to hear or see outside stimuli; some dogs prefer a closet or just their dog bed. Place an Adaptil diffuser in the location to help facilitate calm behavior. Place the diffuser in an electrical outlet at least 72 hours prior to the anticipated event and once plugged in allow the diffuser to remain in place at all times. Check the diffuser on a regular basis for the presence of pheromone material in the chamber and to assess function. Replace diffusers monthly. If the dog hides during the storm they may benefit from wearing an Adaptil collar daily throughout thunderstorm season for better and consistent exposure to the pheromones in addition to a diffuser in the home.
If the dog panics during these noise events the location should be chosen very carefully, some dogs may injure themselves trying to escape crates or rooms with closed doors. Practice taking the dog to this location when no storms are present and begin to associate good things like food stuffed toys and calm petting with the location. White noise such as a fan or the addition of music can help mask the disturbing outside noises during storms. Three research studies have shown a reduction in fear responses to fireworks in dogs exposed to Adaptil therapy during and between noise events so don't forget to utilize this treatment. Limited evidence for the efficacy of body wraps is available, but these additional treatments may be calming for some dogs.
Teaching the dog how to settle and relax in a specific location is extremely useful. A dog bed, a rug or mat can be used in the designated "quiet" place where the Adaptil diffuser is located. The dog is brought to the spot, taught to sit/lay or down/stay while also remaining relaxed using a key phrase "relax, or easy" Training is facilitated with food stuffed toys or a food reward. The goal is for the dog to be physiologically and emotionally calm on cue, as evidenced by slow relaxed breathing, soft body, eyes, ears and tail. When training can take place before the fear inducing event it allows the dog to settle more easily during a storm.
For other dogs it may work better to teach the dog a fun game that can be used during storms or firework displays. A game of fetch, hide and seek or even teaching tricks using food rewards may distract the dog during the anxiety producing event and help them learn to ignore the stimuli.
Counter conditioning and desensitization using audio CD's of storm sounds or other noises can be useful to diminish responses and helo the dog learn to be calm during the event. While a useful treatment modality this is the best prior to storm season for best effect.
WHAT TO DO DURING THE ANXIETY PRODUCING EVENT
At the very first sign of a storm or noise event, calmly take the dog to the designated "safe" area and help them settle and relax. Use your pre-establish kay word to help the dog know what to do. The use of gentle patting, massage, and/or food rewards can help facilitate calmness for some dogs, but other dogs may prefer to be left alone. Punishment and scolding must always be avoided; these will increase anxiety rather than decrease emotional arousal. Do not attempt to remove the dog that has found what they consider to be a safe hiding place unless they are in danger. It is useful for the human to remain calm as well so try to engage in a relaxing activity for yourself.
For some dogs, these recommendations will not be enough and they continue to suffer severe anxiety and panic during a storm. No medications are specifically approved for treatment of noise and storm sensitivities, but various medications have been utilized to help calm dogs experiencing distress at these events. Smaller studies (without placebo) have indicated that anxiolytic medication such as benzodiazepines with or without daily tricyclic antidepressants or selective serotonins reuptake inhibitors may be useful to control the signs of distress and panic in noise and storm sensitive pets. Only a licensed veterinarian who has examined your pet can prescribe, dispense and supervise medication for your dog. Owners should be encouraged to contact their veterinarian for an assessment of their dog and their symptoms to see if medication is appropriate in their individual situation and what medications are safe to administer to their pet.
Using a multimodal approach including pheromones (Adaptil), environmental management, behavior modification and when necessary medication dogs and their people can both have a better storm season.
This article was included in the June, 2013, issue of Midwest Veterinary Supply, authored by Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations, St. Louis, MO.