Fear-Free Fireworks and Weathering the Storm

With the recent 4th of July celebrations and the rash of storms we have been having, one of the more common questions we have been receiving at Temperance Animal Hospital is, “What can I do for my dog so that he/she is not so scared?”  Many dogs (and most cats) will go about their normal day-to-day business during a storm (or neighborly holiday celebration).  But for a certain subset of dogs these occurrences can bring on nothing short of a full-blown anxiety attack.  Signs may include: pacing, panting, drooling, attention seeking (vocalization, pawing, nuzzling or climbing on people), destructive behaviors (digging, chewing or house soiling) and even escape attempts.  Sadly, we have even seen some dogs so panicked that they have jumped through glass windows in an attempt to escape what they perceived as a fearful situation.

As with most things in life, prevention is much more effective than treatment (or management) of an already anxiety-ridden pooch.  But as you can imagine, with exposure to storms or fireworks this is not always doable.  If possible, your puppy’s first exposure to storms or fireworks should be under controlled circumstances and in a safe environment.  One of the class sessions in TAH’s Puppy Kindergarten program helps to teach puppies how to appropriately respond to new and unusual sounds without having a fear based response.  There are even recordings of storms or fireworks available for one to use to “desensitize” a pet to these noises.  For these measures to work, one has to start early and at a low level/intensity of sound… eventually working up to having these noises as
a familiar background soundtrack to daily, fun activities.

Once a dog has developed a fear to fireworks or thunderstorms, fortunately all hope is NOT lost.  Some options to consider follow.

The first topic we should cover is what NOT to do.  While comforting a scared pet intuitively seems like the right thing to do, it will actually reinforce your pet’s fear.  By comforting or babying a fearful pet you are in a sense rewarding their fear and reaffirming that perhaps there is something they should be scared of.  So no matter how pitiful they look… resist the urge to comfort them.  Next (although we would hope it should be obvious) it is important to emphasize that punishing a dog for fear-based or anxiety behavior is very destructive and will make managing the condition even more difficult.

Now on to what we SHOULD do.  Classic Counter Conditioning is probably the most commonly employed behavioral modification technique for dogs with storm/firework phobias.  This is achieved by creating a positive association in your dog’s mind with the scary noises.  If your pet is highly food motivated, this can be achieved by cracking out some of his favorite foods/treats.  A Kong toy stuffed with peanut butter or canned food can be a great diversion for a pet who otherwise would have a nervous breakdown during these times.  The goal is to distract your pet from the actual event that has previously caused the anxiety and refocus his attention onto a delicious food treat.  On the other hand, if your pet is more play motivated, reach for her favorite tennis ball or pull-rope and get her engaged in some good physical activity to get her mind off of the noises going on outdoors.  The overall goal is for your pet to learn that fireworks or thunder signal that something fun and pleasant is about to occur.  This creates a more animated and positive response rather than the typical fear based annoyances.

Another behavioral modification approach is to teach a desirable coping mechanism to your pet.  This approach utilizes a fearful pet’s natural desire to retreat to a safe place until the event ceases.  A safe haven can be a crate, under a bed, in a closet or in a room without any windows. Selecting this location may vary depending on your pet’s personal preferences.  If you have an anxious Yorkie, she may prefer to burrow into the bottom of your linen closet, while your fearful Labrador may opt to retreat to the safe confines of the basement.  You can make these areas extra cozy and comforting by providing additional blankets and bedding.  Or perhaps you could consider leaving a radio playing to help muffle the scary sounds.

Many pets have developed noise phobias (and the associated anxiety/panic attacks) severely enough to warrant a medication discussion with your Veterinarian.  There are two medication approaches that can be discussed:  Short Term/As Needed Therapy or Longer Term/Daily Therapy – each has their pluses and minuses.

Short Term/As Needed Therapy most commonly uses Alprazolam (generic Xanax), or one of the other benzodiazepines.  The benefits of this therapy include:  the quick onset of action (within 1-2 hours), the short duration of action, the ability to administer medication only when it is needed, and that it can be used in combination with other daily medications if “breakthrough anxiety” occurs with more severe events.  The biggest draw back to this approach is that you must be able to predict that an event will occur at least 1-2 hours beforehand. These medications are not as effective at stopping an anxiety attack as they are at preventing one from happening.  Also, with this class of medication some degree of sedation can occur.

Longer Term/Daily Therapy typically relies on medications such as Fluoxetine (generic Prozac) or Clomipramine (generic Clomicalm).  These daily medications ensure that reliable anti-anxiety benefits are in place even if an unexpected or non-predictable event occurs.  Therefore, you can often expect more consistent control of your pet’s overall anxiety issues.  The negatives of this approach include: they must be given once or twice every day, it will take several days (or even weeks) to achieve full effect once starting, you must wean your pet off of the medication if discontinuation is desired, and because it is a chronic medication monitoring blood work will be needed to ensure that no negative side effects develop from it’s use.

A newer and somewhat exciting approach to noise phobias is the Thundershirtline of products.  These are shirts (or more accurately wraps) that provide a constant comforting “hug like” pressure to the animal’s body.  The idea behind these products is similar to the research information gained from studying Autistic children and hug therapy or weighted vests.  The roots of this hypothesis may reach all the back to the practice of swaddling a newborn infant to alleviate stress/anxiety/crying.  In order for the product to be most effective, it should only be worn during times of anxiety.  A Thundershirt is not 100% effective in all cases, but in the dogs that are helped the benefit is usually significant.  Of interesting note:  the company has recently developed a Thundershirt for cats. It should be interesting to see how effective (and tolerated) this product becomes.  You can view more information on Thundershirts at http://www.thundershirt.com/.

Finally we should discuss some of the more natural and organic approaches to noise phobias in pets.  Pheromone Therapy (such as D.A.P. for dogs http://www.dogappeasingpheromone.com/ or Feliway for cats http://www.feliway.com/us ) can be helpful for a variety of stress or anxiety induced issues.  These products mimic the naturally occurring pheromones/hormones that are produced when a pet is feeling calm, happy and content…the goal is to “trick” the brain into feeling calm, happy and content rather than stressed and anxious.  These pheromones come in a variety of vehicles: collars, sprays and even plug-in diffusers to meet the needs of you and your pet.  Another product we have had some success with is “Composure Chews” (http://www.vetriscience.com/composure-soft-dogs-MD-LD.php ) which is a treat-like chew that contains L-Theanine, Thiamine and a natural “Calming Complex” to more organically address anxiety issues in dogs and cats. Last, but not least, available at most pet health food stores is Valerian Root, an herbal supplement that somewhat mimics the effects of Valium (although less potently than the actual medication).

So, if every time the storm clouds roll in or your neighbors decide to celebrate the holidays of summer your beloved pooch heads for the hills or your kitty is shaking in her boots, then it is time to consult your Veterinary Health Care Team to formulate a treatment plan to ease your pet’s anxiety and ensure that we all enjoy the Dog Days of Summer!

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