Fearful reactions to thunderstorms and fireworks are common in dogs and may occur in cats. What can you do to help?
Fortunately fireworks aren’t really an issue in the ACT anymore, but thunderstorms can still create a very stressful time for noise phobic dogs and their owners.
To help reduce fear and stress, create a hidey-hole or area that your dog can escape to during a thunderstorm. If your dog already has an area that they run to, you may just need to modify this place. Alternatively, for an individual that doesn’t know where to escape, you’ll need to create somewhere for them to hide.
The hiding area needs to be in a room with reduced sound level. This will be a room with solid walls, toward the centre of the house or on the side away from the direction weather comes from, with small or no windows. It may be a corner of a room, under a bed, in a wardrobe, in a bathroom or you might make a hidey-hole out of a box (or crate if your dog is already crate trained), throw some blankets over the box or crate to make it more sound proof. Use piles of blankets for the dog to hide under and to absorb sound and include pieces of your own, unwashed, clothing to provide comforting odours. Shut any windows, use heavy curtains to block out sensory stimulus such as sound and light and play loud background music with a steady beat.
Installing an Adaptil® diffuser close to or using Adaptil® spray in the hiding place may also help to calm your dog. Adaptil® (D.A.P. – Dog Appeasing Pheromone) is a synthetic canine pheromone, which can reduce anxiety. You should start it about two weeks before the storm (or firework) season), and continue until the threat is passed.
You should ignore the storm and remain calm and happy. If possible, try to take your dog’s mind of the storm by playing a game or practicing some training.
Don’t get angry with your dog if they become fearful. This will only intensify your dog’s emotions. You can use steady hand pressure and a soothing tone of voice to give some reassurance. Ignore inappropriate behaviour and reward calm, settled behaviour.
Your dog may require short-term medical therapy, which your vet can prescribe after a consultation. The most commonly used medication is a benzodiazepine which, when given prior to the event, can help alleviate anxiety. It also affects short-term memory formation so the dog won’t remember their fearful reaction and this prevents escalation of the fear response between events.
Long-term management requires the training techniques of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Desensitisation is a method to gradually reduce an animal’s response to a stimulus until the animal remains emotionally neutral in the presence of that stimulus. In the context of a storm phobia, this could involve playing a recording of storm sounds at a very low level, that the dog doesn’t react to and gradually increasing the volume of the fear-inducing stimulus. The main problem with this method is that the fear-inducing stimulus of a storm is multifactorial, including visual cues and air-pressure changes, which can’t be presented in a desensitisation program.
Counter-conditioning is the process by which an unwanted behaviour is replaced by an acceptable response and the animal’s emotional response to a stimulus is altered. The dog is taught to respond to a cue, such as sitting or calming on command and they are given a reward. Initially the dog is asked to respond to this cue in a distraction-free environment. This new behaviour (e.g. sitting or settling on cue) is then introduced to the dog in the presence of the stimulus, which triggers the undesirable response, initially with the offending stimulus in a diluted form (e.g. a CD of storm sounds on low volume). In order for this to work, the motivation to perform the new behaviour has to be stronger than that for the unwanted behaviour.
The response to these training methods may be enhanced by long-term medical therapy such as a tricyclic antidepressant or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. These medications increase serotonin levels in the brain, reduce anxiety and facilitate learning, improving the response to behavioural therapy. They take weeks to achieve therapeutic levels and should always be used in association with behavioural therapy.
Written by Dr Kim Cleary
Adaptil® and CD’s such as “Loud Noises to Calm your Dog” are available over the counter from Gungahlin Veterinary Hospital. Short and long term anti-anxiety medications are prescription only drugs and may only be dispensed after a consultation. Detailed behaviour consultations are available to help your pet’s anxiety and other problems.