Is your dog afraid of thunderstorms, fireworks and loud noises?
They are not alone. I have had patients so afraid that they have chewed through doors and jumped out of windows. It’s called noise phobia and it is an extremely common problem in our canine companions. With the Fourth of July fast approaching and summer thunderstorm season upon us, it almost seems as though tranquilizers are being dispensed from animal hospitals like candy. Sedatives can play a role in keeping your pet happy but it’s only part of the solution. So what can you do to help your pet weather the storm and keep the holiday safe and enjoyable for the whole family?
Dogs look to us to help reassure them. If you are tense and worried by the noise yourself, or you are worried about your pet, they will sense it and this can reinforce the idea that there is a reason to be afraid.
Minimize Noise Exposure
Minimizing exposure to offending noises is one of the best things you can do to keep your pet calm. Start by finding a windowless room away from the outside world, such as a bathroom, closet or the basement. If you don’t have any rooms like this in the house, a crate covered by a heavy blanket to muffle the sounds may suffice. Drowning out the noise also helps. Get a TV or radio and turn it on as a distraction. There are CDs available that are specially created to be soothing to animals during these types of situations.
Adaptil is a product known as a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). DAPs are a synthetic version of the chemical signal that a nursing dog gives off to her puppies. It comes as a spray, plug-in and collar. DAP is odorless to humans but when dogs smell it, it creates a sensation of calmness and security. Dogs with noise phobia can greatly benefit from this product. Spray your pets bed or blanket with it, or plug it into an outlet in the special room you have designated for your dog to wait out the noise.
Many people have seen or heard of the Thundershirt. These are wraps that are placed snuggly around your dog. The firm pressure across the body causes a release of endorphins which help to calm your pet. I have heard mixed reviews from clients who have used these products on their pets. One problem may be leaving it on too long. The benefits of a Thundershirt or similar product tend to wane after 20-30 minuntes. After that it is best to remove the wrap for a while and then replace it.
Before turning to prescription medication, there are some supplements and herbal remedies that have been shown to be useful in anxious or afraid pets. Check with your veterinarian to make sure that it is safe for your dog to take any of these before giving them. In mild cases of noise phobia, these products may be sufficient by themselves, in more serious cases they won’t replace tranquilizers but they may reduce the dose of medication that you need. Some of the supplements that have been shown to help reduce anxiety in dogs are valerian root, chamomile, and melatonin. Again ASK YOUR VET before giving any of these product to your pet.
When push comes to shove, a tranquilizer may be needed for your pet. Many people are afraid of medicating their pets. What about the side effects? People often don’t remember to think of the side effects of serious fear and anxiety—racing heart, increased blood pressure, excessive panting, decreased immune system… Dogs suffering from anxiety may also hurt themselves or others trying to escape from whatever is frightening them.
There are many tranquilizers that may be of benefit to a pet with a noise phobia; alprazolam, valium, and my favorite for most healthy dogs—trazodone, are just a few of the options to discuss with your vet. One medication I recommend staying away from for any fearful pet is acepromazine. This medication is usually a pretty good tranquilizer, however it does nothing to help with your dog’s anxiety. Pets on acepromazine will act calm and sedate, but inside they are just as frightened as ever, and they are unable to do anything to alleviate their fear. This helplessness will only act to compound their fear in the future.
Curing Noise Phobia
The advice above is about helping your dog deal with their anxiety when it’s happening but it does not address the root of the problem. Behavior modification is the best way to help your pet. There are two main types of behavioral modification you should use.
Counterconditioning is a method of turning a negative experience into a positive one. Many people mistakenly believe that by providing a pet with attention, treats and other rewards when they are acting out from fear, it will reinforce bad behavior. This could not be further from the truth. Your pet’s behavior is a reaction to their fear. Stop the fear and you will stop the bad behavior.
Pairing a negative experience with a positive one gives your pet a reason to look forward to something that once frightened them. So save your pet’s favorite treat and only give to them during a storm or fireworks show.
Desensitization is the process of exposing your pet to a fearful stimuli at very low doses until they get used to it. It is the same as a person who is afraid of heights going up a ladder a couple of rungs a day until they can climb all the way to the top without fear. Get a CD of thunderstorms and start playing it around your pet at the lowest possible volume. Once they can tolerate the sound, increase the volume slightly. Keep doing this slowly until they become used to the noise at a very high level without fear. If at any point the sound makes your pet fearful, take it back to a level they can tolerate.
Counterconditioning and desensitization can and should be used in conjunction. When your pet is calm and collected around the thunderstorm CD, give them a reward.
Behavioral modification takes time and commitment
In the long run, it is the best way to deal with your dogs noise phobia and it is worth it for you and your pet. Here’s to a safe and enjoyable holiday and a fear-free summer!