Thunderstorm Anxiety - continued
By Melanie S., GRFR Vetting Coordinator
A phobia is a greatly exaggerated fear response. This fear response may result in your dog showing some of the following signs: hiding, urinating, chewing, panting, pacing, trying to escape through doors/windows/walls, drooling, loss of appetite, trembling, dilated pupils, barking. The phobia tends to worsen as the dog ages. Up to 20% of dogs of all ages and breeds suffer from some kind of noise phobia. This percentage tends to be slightly higher in rescue dogs. Many GRFR dogs are former backyard dogs left outside to fend for themselves in all kinds of weather. Others were found as strays after a particularly bad storm or during the ever lengthening 4th of July celebration period. Since there is no real way to prevent a dog from getting noise phobia, nor is there a known cure for the ailment, we as dog owners are stuck with trying to deal with the issue. Here are a few ideas, hopefully one or more of them will work for you and your family.
Project a calm attitude: Our pets feed off of our state of mind. If you are afraid of the thunderstorm chances are Fido is going to feel that discomfort too. Your pet will look to you for direction so stay calm. Do not reassure your dog, he'll process this as positive reinforcement for his fear. Most importantly do not punish your dog for their fear or for any damage that occurs during a phobic episode. It serves no purpose and won't help to prevent the episodes from reoccurring. If you are home during the storm, make it a "non event", keep your voice upbeat. Get out the treats and make the storm a doggie party event.
Create a safe space: Some dogs feel more comfortable in a specific area of the house. Some of these could be his crate, the bathtub, a basement bedroom, laundry room, a closet. Basically any place that is slightly more confined and where noise is muffled as much as possible. My dog has a safe space at home and a safe space when we are camping. She knows the term "safe space" and she'll go to that place when directed.
Reduce or block the noise level: Try adding some white noise in the vicinity of your dog's safe space. Fans, music, TV or stereo. Anything that can help drown out the noise will help. There is one theory that harp music in particular works wonders on dogs suffering from high anxiety. Apparently the vibrations of the strings send out overtones, some of which are inaudible to the human ear. Don't play the music continuously, just as needed otherwise the dog can become desensitized.
Hug therapy: Body wrapping has been shown to calm anxious dogs. I recently started using a Thundershirt on my dog and it has worked great for thunder storms, not so much for fireworks however. Apparently by applying constantly maintained pressure the wrap provides a quieting stimulus that causes the nerve receptors to quiet. You can order a Thundershirt from their website: http://thundershirt.com/
-Melatonin - Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies that helps us sleep. Melatonin is available in most health food stores or vitamin stores. You should give your dog melatonin before you leave for the day if thunderstorms are predicted as it remains effective for several hours. You can also give it when your dog begins becoming agitated. The usual dosage is 3mg for a dog between 50-100lb. Please read the label. Some melatonin products are mixed with herbs or nutrients that may not be safe for dogs. Make sure you buy the correct dosage and purchase a higher quality label.
-Rescue Remedy - Rescue Remedy, Calming Essence or Five Flower Formula are a good place to start to see if you can calm your dog naturally. These are also available at most health food stores or vitamin stores and some pet stores. Just a few drops given between the gums and lip can help mild anxiety with no side effects. It only lasts a couple of hours however so you have to be home when the storm starts.
-Lavender - You can spray lavender oil mixed with water on the dogs sleeping area and little bit on their muzzle and around their ears. This can sometimes work for mild cases of anxiety.
-Room plug-ins - Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) room plug-ins can decrease anxiety in dogs whether the anxiety is storm induced or separation induced. The room diffusers should be plugged into an outlet is in the open and as central to the area the dog hangs out in as possible. They should be used on a constant basis. You can usually find these less expensively on amazon.com. One diffuser usually covers an area of 600square fee.
Medical treatments: Some dogs are going to be resistant to the above recommendations. In those cases you'll need to consult with your personal veterinarian. As a last resort there are a variety of behavior modification drugs on the market.
-Anti depressant medications such as Prozac, Zoloft and Clomicalm are some examples of medications that produce a calming effect by increasing the serotonin levels of the brain. These medications can also be used to treat separation anxiety in dogs. For the most benefit they must be given throughout the entire storm season.
-Anxitane is not a medication per se; it is a nutraceutical for the brain, kind of a "supplement". It decreases the frequency of alpha waves in the visual cortex of the brain. These make visual stimuli ie: rain and lightening, less stimulating. It has no side effects and is not sedating.
-Acepromazine (Ace) or Valium are both major tranquilizers. They have no anti-anxiety properties. Basically your dog is still experiencing all the stress and anxiety of the storm but he can't show it. They can also actually heighten sensitivity to noises. Please check these options thoroughly with your vet before using them.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning:
I would strongly suggest you consult with a reputable trainer before starting these options. However here is a simple run down.
Desensitization is the process by which an anxiety producing stimulus ie: thunder, is presented very subtly so as -not- to induce an anxious response. Very slowly, repeat, very slowly, the intensity of the stimulus is increased, always keeping it below the anxiety producing point. This is a time consuming process and if you move too quickly you'll have to start over from scratch.
Counter-Conditioning is the conditioning of the dog to respond to the anxiety producing stimulus in a positive way. In this case the dog is encouraged to enjoy his favorite activity like chasing ball (in the house), favorite treats, favorite toy. Play can often over-ride fear.
If you have ideas that have worked for you we would love to hear about them. Again, please be sure to consult with your veterinarian before starting any program.