Gusty winds, heavy rain, boisterous thunder and flashing lightning may be nature’s formula for fun this time of year, but for many dogs, this is a recipe for both anxiety and stress.
All too commonly, we see a perfectly happy pet fall victim to panting, drooling, pacing, and hiding when spring storms set in. Many pet owners dread this time of year because not only does it means that their pet will have to suffer through the stress of spring storms, but many poor nights of sleep are likely in store for the entire household.
One of the more common queries that veterinarians receive regarding storm phobias is, “What can I do to make this season different?” When addressing this question, it is vital that owners appreciate that no single treatment is effective in every pet. In many cases, a combination of medications and behavioral training is needed to truly reduce the anxiety surrounding storm phobias. In some cases, an underlying anxiety disorder will need to be mitigated before achieving success with storm phobias. Quite commonly, pets who exhibit thunderstorm phobias also have other concurrent anxieties, and addressing them at the same time leads to better success overall.
There are several forms of treatment available to help with thunderstorm anxiety. Thundershirts, natural remedies, pheromone therapies, behavioral modification and tranquilizers are a few of the things your veterinarian may discuss with you. Again, the statement applies, “No single treatment is effective in every pet.” Your veterinarian will be most able to devise a plan specific for your pet that incorporates their individual behavioral needs.
Below are some of the more common remedies that may be recommended to help your pet:
There are many natural products on the market for anxiety. Natural products are safe, but are rarely strong enough for a severely affected individual. These products typically contain flower extracts and amino acids that work together to help reduce stress and create a feeling of general well-being and calmness.
Thundershirts, Storm Defenders, & Anxiety Wraps
The theory behind these devices is to provide comfort by mimicking the feeling of being swaddled. Only a small percentage of pets respond solely to this form of treatment. Most will need other adjunctive methods to help with their storm phobia. The animals that respond best to this form of therapy are often young and have few other behavioral eccentricities. The Thundershirt brand offers a 45-day money back guarantee should it not provide the success you are looking for. Most pets will show improvement during the first thunderstorm, while others will need to undergo two or three storms to truly judge whether it is going to be effective.
A select population of pets will respond to pheromone therapy. Pheromone therapy is best described as an aerosolized medium that mimics natural scents that can reduce stress and anxiety. The scent is derived from a similar pheromone produced by a lactating dog or cat. The Adaptil product line is well known in the veterinary industry. The product line offers an array of diffusers, collars, and sprays. The comparable version for cats is called “Feliway.” Many of the veterinary colleges advocate spraying towels and placing them in a cat carrier prior to storms, long trips, or veterinary visits to help calm them.
The theory of behavioral modification revolves around offering pleasing treats, toys, or situations, while playing low level storm noises in the background. Over time, the sound should slowly be intensified until pets no longer associate the sound of thunder with fear. Be aware that behavioral modification will be challenging if a greater underlying anxiety exists. In most cases, helping teach confidence through training can lessen anxiety. Directing a dog’s attention and focus can be instrumental in calming thunderstorm phobia. A focused and confident dog is often a less anxious dog. Additionally, desensitizing all forms of apprehension and anxiety, rather than focusing on a single problem, will increase the chance of long term success.
Many medications exist to reduce anxiety associated with thunderstorms. Alprazolam and trazodone are the most effective anxiolytics on the veterinary market. Acepromazine is a commonly used sedative for storm phobia, but in comparison to Trazodone and Alprazolam, Acepromazine has much greater sedative effect than the anxiolytic medications, which may or may not be appropriate given the situation. Finally, the newest medication on the market for treatment is “Sileo.” “Sileo” blocks norepinephrine release, a chemical in the brain that is involved with the development of fear and anxiety. When dispensing this medication, or any of the others mentioned above, owners should understand that a wide therapeutic range exists and that the starting dose that is prescribed by your veterinarian is not always the best dose for any one patient. Often, a dose reduction or dose increase is needed to achieve the desired effect. You should stay in close touch with your veterinarian if you are not receiving the desired effect of the medication. Please make sure to consult with your veterinarian before any dose adjustment is made. Also, consider that tranquilizers may help temporarily with specific phobias such as thunderstorm anxiety, but most medications are just masking the underlying issue. Many animal behaviorists and dog trainers will attempt to wean dogs off these medications over time, and rightfully so.
In summary, the single most important thing to remember when attempting to implement any of these approaches to storm phobia reduction is to never give up on a therapy or medication after just a single attempt. Anxiety reduces with proper treatment over time, and it is imperative to remember that a multimodal approach to anxiety is always needed for long term success.
Lastly, in most cases, some form of behavioral intervention is needed and consulting with an experienced animal behaviorist or trainer is highly recommended. Michael O’Donnell, of “Sit Means Sit, Southern Raleigh,” is well known for his ability to manage dogs with anxiety and we have used his services for several of our severely anxious dogs with good results.
Dr. Carmen Dabiero is a veterinarian at Hemlock Bluffs Animal Hospital and Laser Treatment Center.