Storm Phobias & Anxiety.…not to be taken lightly

Many of our friends and clients know that we’ve been on a jour­ney to iden­tify solu­tions to relieve the severe anx­i­ety our three year old Aussie, Cody, expe­ri­ences dur­ing a thun­der­storm.  We peri­od­i­cally dis­cuss his sit­u­a­tion in classes and pri­vate behav­ior con­sult­ing ses­sions in order to help oth­ers under­stand that the anx­i­ety a dog expe­ri­ences in response to a par­tic­u­lar pho­bia can have poten­tially seri­ous health implications.

As defined by Merriam-Webster’s dic­tio­nary:  Pho­bia: noun; an exag­ger­ated, usu­ally inex­plic­a­ble and illog­i­cal fear of a par­tic­u­lar object, class of objects or a sit­u­a­tion. Anx­i­ety:  noun; an abnor­mal and over­whelm­ing sense of appre­hen­sion and fear, often marked by phys­i­o­log­i­cal signs (sweat­ing, ten­sion, increased pulse), by doubt con­cern­ing the real­ity and nature of a threat….”.

Many dogs expe­ri­ence some form of mild anx­i­ety in response to an oncom­ing or present thun­der­storm.  While we don’t know what’s going on inside the dog’s brain, the phys­i­o­log­i­cal symp­toms can present as rapid breath­ing, trem­bling, shak­ing, dilated pupils, rapid pant­ing, drool­ing, hyper­vig­i­lance (mov­ing about a lot), fren­zied run­ning (to escape from or charge toward the sound) and non-stop bark­ing.  All of these are an emo­tional response to some­thing asso­ci­ated with some par­tic­u­lar stim­u­lus asso­ci­ated with the storm such as change in baro­met­ric pres­sure, other sounds (wind rain), change in light (light­en­ing flashes) and even change in our own human behav­ior dur­ing the storm.

Many dogs suf­fer in silence, mean­ing they don’t vocal­ize dur­ing a storm; how­ever, Cody’s response is to con­tin­u­ally charge through the house, eyes fully dilated, run­ning and bark­ing at the sound of thun­der.  He doesn’t seem to react to a change in baro­met­ric pres­sure, but at the very first slight­est rum­ble of thun­der, he’s very much out of his think­ing brain and expe­ri­enc­ing an emo­tional reac­tion to the storm.

One way to help an ani­mal change their par­tic­u­lar emo­tional response to some­thing in their envi­ron­ment is counter con­di­tion­ing and desen­si­ti­za­tion (CC&D).  This is done by pair­ing the scary stim­u­lus at a very low level of inten­sity with some­thing that’s extremely high value to the dog (usu­ally incred­i­bly yummy food).  Unfor­tu­nately, CC&D isn’t always suc­cess­ful because it’s dif­fi­cult to con­trol the level of inten­sity dur­ing the behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion period; how­ever, it’s some­thing we rec­om­mend and are using nonetheless.

We’ve tried all of the nor­mal rec­om­mended com­ple­men­tary ther­a­pies, but they haven’t made any change in Cody’s anx­i­ety.  These include the Thun­der­shirt (an anx­i­ety wrap many of our clients have had suc­cess with), music ther­apy (Through a Dog’s Ear, a clin­i­cally researched audi­tory series of CDs to help calm dogs and reduce anx­i­ety), Dog Appeas­ing Pheromones or D.A.P.™ (syn­thet­i­cally pro­duced pheromone which mim­ics the prop­er­ties of the nat­ural pheromones of the lac­tat­ing female which have a calm­ing effect on many dogs), an herbal calm­ing col­lar and Mela­tonin (an over the counter sup­ple­ment often rec­om­mended by Dr. Nicholas Dod­man, BVMS at Tufts Uni­ver­sity).  Note:  it’s impor­tant to check with your vet­eri­nar­ian before using any over the counter sup­ple­ment on your dogs.

As Dr. Karen Over­all, a vet­eri­nary behav­ior­ist says, “Storm and noise pho­bias are emer­gen­cies.  They’ll only worsen with expo­sure, and the rate at which they worsen depends on the neu­ro­chem­istry of the dog and the sever­ity and unpre­dictabil­ity of the storms.”  Because of her pub­lished work that I stud­ied, I real­ized we needed to con­sider med­ica­tion for Cody.

Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals are some­thing I con­sider last when work­ing with any behav­ior issue, but if no suc­cess is occur­ring with behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion and alter­na­tive ther­a­pies, then a con­sult with a vet­eri­nar­ian about med­ica­tion is in order.  In Cody’s case, we had tried most every­thing with­out suc­cess and his level of anx­i­ety was still so severe that after a con­sult with our vet, we agreed to adding drugs in the form of Alpra­zo­lam given shortly before a storm and he’s also Flu­ox­e­tine (Rec­on­cile), a long act­ing SSRI.  He’s been on the Rec­on­cile for over 60 days and we’ve seen no improve­ment, so we’re dis­cussing with our vet what’s next since there’s no reduc­tion in his anx­i­ety.  All dogs are indi­vid­u­als and dif­fer­ent phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals affect each one dif­fer­ently, just like humans.  It may be that this com­bi­na­tion just isn’t the right com­bi­na­tion for him, so we’ll move on to explore others.

If your dog is expe­ri­enc­ing anx­i­ety to a storm, then don’t dally….seek help from a trainer schooled in behav­ior, as well as a con­sult with your vet­eri­nar­ian.  Many times, train­ing and behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion alone can make a tremen­dous dif­fer­ence.  How­ever, drugs cer­tainly have a place in behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion and aren’t to be feared when they can pre­vent suf­fer­ing from storm and noise pho­bias. 

Lisa Lyle Wag­goner is a CPDT-KA, a Pat Miller Cer­ti­fied Trainer-Level2 and a dog*tec Cer­ti­fied Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose Col­lege in Mur­phy, North Car­olina.  She enjoys pro­vid­ing behav­ior con­sult­ing and train­ing solu­tions to clients in the tri-state area of North Car­olina, Geor­gia and Ten­nessee, as well as offer­ing edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties for dog train­ers and dog hob­by­ists through­out the U.S.

3 Responses to Storm Phobias & Anxiety.…not to be taken lightly

  1. Mary Clendaniel says:

    Thank you Lisa, call­ing our vet…

  2. admin says:

    You’re wel­come, Mary. We also use Mela­tonin for our own dogs, but please check with your vet on this. Let us know how she does. We carry Thun­der­shirts and so does Moun­tain Pets in Murphy.

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