The Emergency of the Debilitating fear of Fireworks, Thunderstorms and Other Loud Noises
Please note that while this blog post will be focusing on canine noise phobias, our feline patients can certainly experience similar phobias. If you have a cat that is fearful of loud noises please continue reading as many of the management and treatment options are applicable to cats as well.
The 4th of July is right around the corner and for many dog owners this time of year is not a welcomed celebration of American freedom, instead it is a stressful and sad experience while we watch our dogs who experience noise phobias suffer extreme fear while the rest of country celebrates. Many of us might wish we lived far far away from our neighbors and their love of home fireworks displays or as summer moves in find ourselves living around the weather forecast and stressing over pop up thunderstorms.
Fear is a natural response in the animal kingdom, it is adaptive and aids in survival. Phobias on the other hand are characterized by an excessive out of proportion response to a stimuli that is often debilitating and interrupts the ability to function normally. Phobias can develop for a variety of reasons – genetically predisposed to fear and anxiety, bad experience, fear of sudden noises, punishment while displaying fearful response to a noise stimulus, etc. These excessive emotional responses are characterized by:
Mild- panting, pacing, trembling, attention seeking, vocalization/whining, hypersalivation/drooling, dilated pupils
Moderate – hiding, vomiting, digging/chewing, house soiling, express anal glands, food refusal
Severe – aggression, escape behavior, self-mutilation, cardiac compromise/arrest
Continual exposure to the noise phobia triggers without pharmacologic and behavioral intervention will simply cause the fear and anxiety your dog experiences to worsen and also results in huge physiological cortisol releases which can prolong the effects of the phobia long after the thunderstorm or fireworks have stopped. It is important to note that ~70 percent of dogs with noise phobia also have undiagnosed separation anxiety affecting their quality of life as well.
Management and Behavior Modification
Noise phobias can worsen dramatically with exposure which makes intervention with either anti-anxiety supplements or pharmaceuticals a cornerstone of successful management. As discussed above, these fear responses will increase over time without appropriate intervention, which means that the pop-up storm while you are at work and your dog is at home suffering a panic attack can only serve to make future fear response worse. As a result of our inability to control the weather we at East Shelbyville Animal Clinic recommend to give any prescribed supplements or medications if there is a 20% chance or more of inclement/stormy weather.
There are a variety of over the counter anti-anxiety options available to help dogs and cats with mild noise anxieties or decrease the amount of pharmaceuticals required for pets with severe noise phobias.
1. Composure Pro: Composure Pro is a nutraceutical supplement with a number of ingredients that promote calm: L-Theanine, Colostrum Calming Complex, L- Tryptophan, Thiamine.
- Similar Supplements from other Reputable Companies: NutriCalm from RxVitamins, Solliquin from NutriMax Labs, Zylkene from Vetoquinol
2. Melatonin: Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that can help with anxiety, insomnia, and some dermatological conditions in our pets.
3. Anxiety Wraps: Thundershirt and T-Touch Anxiety Wrap
4. HomeoPet Anxiety TFLN (Thunderstorm, Fireworks, Loud Noise)
5. MuttMuffs: Sound dampening ear muffs designed for dogs.
Providing a safe space is important for many pets to start the process of counterconditioning and desensitization. Building a Thnuder Bunker can offer pets a respite space while their world is crashing around them. In our house, the bunker space is the walk-in closet in the master bedroom. It’s dark (no windows) and located in the middle of the house so slightly quieter than some of the other rooms during a storm. Other things that can help improve relaxation in the Thunder Bunker include: white noise, Adaptil diffusers and soft lavender scent, soft classical music such as the Through a Dog’s Ear CD. It is important to establish this space as a place where good things happen prior to using it for thunderstorms. For more information on how to establish a Thunder Bunker Protocol check out this link to trainer John D Visconti, CPDT-KA’s post for The Pet Professional Guild.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Desensitization and counterconditioning are behavioral modification approaches to help teach dogs to have different emotional responses to fear inducing stimuli.
Systemic Desensitization is “a treatment for phobias in which the patient is exposed to progressively more anxiety-provoking stimuli and taught relaxation techniques.”
Counterconditioning is “a technique employed in animal training, and in the treatment of phobias and similar conditions in humans, in which behavior incompatible with a habitual undesirable pattern is induced.”
For pets with noise phobias, systemic desensitization can be very difficult because of our life schedules, the unpredictability of the weather and our friendly neighbors with a love for fireworks. In addition, it is hard to mimic the scenario leading up to and during a thunderstorm (barometric pressure changes, wind, rain, static electricity, lightening etc.) In an effort to aid pet owners with desensitization there are audio CDs of Thunderstorms, Fireworks and City noises produced by Through a Dog’s Ear and Victoria Stillwell.
For more information on how to attempt desensitization successfully check out this wonderful blog post from Elieen and Dogs.
Because desensitization is often so difficult to do well for noise phobic dogs we are often left with focusing on counterconditioning during the actual events to attempt to create a conditioned emotional response which is more pleasant than the fear induced by the stimuli. For more information on how to attempt counterconditioning with noise phobic dogs check out another post from Elieen and Dogs.
It is incredibly important to note that fear is a deep rooted base emotional response. You cannot reinforce fear by comforting your dog. Be calm and relaxed in doing so but don’t hesitate to provide as much comfort as your pet needs.
Why Not Use Acepromazine?
Over the last 10-15 years the veterinary world has progressed significantly in their knowledge of behavioral issues and the medications available to treat them. For a long time the only medication we used for situational anxiety such as noise phobias and car travel was a drug called Acepromazine. Acepromazine is a dissociative anesthetic which can cause profound sedation, altered perceptions and increased noise sensitivity but does nothing to alleviate the fear your pet perceives during phobic events. In fact, continued exposure to the fearful stimuli while under the influence of this pharmaceutical straitjacket often results in increasing the fear our pets experience rather than decreasing it. This increase in fear is often masked by the sedative effects of the drug itself but the internal physiological stress response of the “fight or flight” drive can in excessive cases result in a cardiovascular emergency and at best only serves to strengthen the fear your pet experiences during phobic events.
To learn more about Acepromazine and why it is not an appropriate choice for fearful dogs check out veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB article and her video lecture on Acepromazine here.
What Drugs Work Better?
1. Benzodiazepines (Alprazolam, Clonazapam, Diazapam): This class of drug decreases anxiety and is safe to use in dogs with seizures. They have a relatively short duration of action (4-6 hours) and lack the profound sedative effects of Acepromazine as discussed above.
2. Trazodone: Trazodone is an atypical antidepressant that can be used as a single agent anti-anxiety for events or in combination with other anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines.
3. Clonidine: Clonidine is an alpha-2 agonist. This drug class functions by decreasing norepinephrine release which occurs during stressful events.
4. Sileo: Sileo is a new oromucosal gel that is formulated to help diminish noise phobias without sedation. It has a quick onset of action and could be used for emergency pop-up storm scenarios as well.
For dogs with severe noise phobia it may take a combination of situational anti-anxiety drugs or the addition of a daily anti-anxiety medication, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) during thunderstorm season to gain the best results.
Be sure to ask your veterinarian for help deciding the best nutraceutical and pharmacological approach to managing your dog’s fear!