Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fear of Summer Storms & Fireworks: How Do I Help My Dog?

Fear of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises is very common in dogs.  It can be very stressful to watch your pet shake, drool, pace, and crawl into your lap whenever there are storms or fireworks.   Worse yet are the sleepless nights spent comforting your pet during nighttime storms.  In their panic, some dogs will damage the house and even hurt themselves.  These dogs are truly suffering and can be a danger to the house and themselves if they try to “get away” from the noise.  Noise phobias usually start out with mild behavior.  Unfortunately, they almost always worsen over time, so it’s best to address the problem as soon as you notice symptoms.

The good news is there are steps you can take to help your pet.

            1.   Ensure your pet has access to his “safe” location when you know of an impending storm.   Identify if there is a spot in the house that your pet retreats to during storms.  Often dogs will seek out a closet, their crate, or go under beds when panicked.  Be aware, however, that for dogs trying to “get away” from the noise, confinement in a small space may increase their anxiety.  Some dogs have been known to pull out teeth trying to bite their way out of a crate.  Background “white noise,” ear covers (e.g. Mutt Muffs®) and sound muting cage covers (e.g. Thunderhut®) might also assist in reducing the intensity of the dog’s response while eye covers (e.g. Doggles®) and room darkening shades may reduce the visual stimuli associated with storms.

            2.  Behavior modification takes time, effort and repetition. It is important to first train the dog to relax in its own bed or comfort area (safe haven) to be sure you can calm him before dealing with any storm. Providing a safe and secure environment where the animal has a sense of control and predictability is important to success.  Behavior modification relies on several treatment strategies:  desensitization, counter-conditioning, and relaxation.

If dogs react to thunder, they can potentially be desensitized by playing CD recordings of thunder noises, initially at a low level and gradually increased overtime.  However, many dogs’ fear is stimulated by wind, barometric pressure changes, lightning and rain. In these cases, desensitizing against many of these stimuli is not possible.  Other dogs can be counter-conditioned to the storm by playing with or feeding the dog treats while the dog is subjected to the low levels of the stimulus.  Dogs should not be punished for fearful behavior as it will only distress them more.   Instead, dogs should be rewarded for remaining calm and relaxed.  It’s best to begin training during times of the year when storms or fireworks can be avoided, so that the pet’s reaction can be improved prior to the next thunderstorm season.

            3.  For mild responses to noise, pheromones and compression shirts may help calm your pet.  Pheromones are naturally secreted by dogs into their environment and help them feel calm.  Synthetic pheromones, such as Adaptil brand products, can mimic this calming response.  Compression shirts that your dog wears, such as the Thundershirt, also can have calming effects.

            4.  Most dogs with noise phobias, however, need anti-anxiety medications to prevent them from injuring themselves and to help keep their behavior from worsening.   The behavior modification techniques described above are much more successful when anti-anxiety  medications are used.  Some medications can be taken continuously throughout storm season while others are given only when a storm is forecast.  Medication, along with behavior modification, can reduce a dog’s distress and improve both the dog’s and the owner’s quality of life.

We encourage you to discuss your pet’s behavior concerns with your veterinarian when you first notice symptoms.  Treatment is much more successful when started early helping you and your pet have a happier life together.

--Silke Bogart, DVM

1 comment:

  1. My Aunt's dog has a fear of thunderstorms and fireworks, so summers are bad times for him. I didn't know they offered medications for dogs to help with their anxiety, but your suggestion may help because his anxiety can get pretty bad. Thanks for the tips!