Storm season is fast approaching and this can be a challenging time for our pets. At McDowall Vets, we see many dogs that suffer from noise phobias. Common noise phobias include storms, fireworks, gun fire, construction noise or even the vacuum cleaner at home.
For storm phobic dogs the fear can be multifactorial; set off by bright lightning, clapping of thunder, sound of rain, sound of the wind or the pressure drop that normally accompanies or precedes a storm.
When a pet is scared we may see them looking around, wanting to be near us, hiding in their beds or mild trembling. In more extreme cases pets can become very anxious and can be at risk of hurting themselves, others around them or property.
Clinical signs of more extreme fear can include pacing, inability to settle, drooling (hypersalivating), barking/howling, shaking uncontrollably, breaking through barriers to escape or frantically trying to get close to people.
Treatment for these guys is multi-modal. We need to start by identifying the fear, and then try to put into place a combination of environmental management, behavioural management and in many cases medical management.
So what can we do to help our pets?
1) Environmental Management:
- Reduce the triggers by:
- Avoiding or removing a known trigger. As obvious as it sounds but if we know our pets have an adverse reaction to e.g. the vacuum cleaner consider having them outside whilst you vacuum inside.
- Closing Windows to help reduce the noise level
- Closing curtains to limit the brightness of lightning
- Securing any loose objects that may flap or bang in the wind
- Take them to an insulated space to limit the noise level: This can be an insulated crate kennel, the bottom of a cupboard or an internal bathroom with no windows
- Remain calm:
- Our pets look to us as group leaders, so if we show any signs of fear or distress this further elevates their anxiety
- When the pet is fussing try to sit calmly with them – do not fuss them, or show above normal affection. Us sitting there patting them frantically or using a high pitched voice trying to comfort them will actually cause them more distress.
- Use background noise to disguise the noise
- For low level stress the TV or the radio may be sufficient
- White noise can be downloaded from online (Spotify and Apple Music both have playlists called ‘White Noise’), used on phone apps or purchased as a CD. White noise can be more beneficial than normal radio or TV as it is a constant noise specifically designed to drown out all other back ground noise
- Rap music has also been shown to be beneficial as the varying base helps to cover up other outside noises
- Make sure your pet is in a safe and secure location:
- Frightened dogs are more likely to dig out of yards, climb over fences or even break through glass!
- If you know a stress inducing event (storms, fireworks, construction) is predicted consider keeping them indoors for the day or have a plan in place to get home before the event occurs to get them inside
2) Behavioural Management (This does take more time, and so noticeable changes could take up to several months)
- Train your pet to use a safe spot
- Identify a place you would like your pet to use as a ‘safe space’ during the noise event
- This can be an insulated crate, the bottom of a cupboard, an internal windowless room or even a mat
- Start by placing a chair next to the safe spot and attaching a lead to your dog’s collar
- Sit on the chair and calmly ask your dog to step onto their safe spot. Once on the spot ask them to sit or drop
- Once settled say the phrase ‘Good Calm’ and then reward with a verbal praise and a treat
- When starting out aim to sit like this for 5 minutes, repeating the phrase ‘Good Calm’ intermittently when the dog is completely settled
- With time try to lengthen the amount of time your dog will sit on the mat/in the space spot – some thunderstorms can last for up to an hour so it’s good if your training has practised the ability to sit calmly for this length of time
- Desensitisation therapy
- Is the act of conditioning the animal to no longer find the sound of the scary or threatening
- There are various online programs that can be sourced with detailed instructions, or you can source the sounds of their specific noise phobia from Spotify or Apple Music:
- Start with the music playing, but sound on ‘0’
- Take the dog to their ‘safe space’ (see previous)
- Sit calmly with them as you gradually increase the sound level
- The aim is to increase the sound level just enough to get a mild reaction out of your dog i.e. looking around, ears pricked, and once reached immediately drop the sound level back to 0.
- Remain aloof/disinterested whilst carrying out the noise activity
- Once the dog shows calm behaviour say ‘Good Calm’ and reward
- Repeat this several times (10 times would be a good place to start), rewarding the dog for sitting calmly in their safe space with you
- By repeating this exercise each day over time we should be able to gradually increase the sound level that is needed to get a fearful response from the dog until hopefully the dog can sit in the safe space unaffected by the noise outside
- On Spotify look up ‘thunderstorms’ for a choice of various storm noises. This training method can also be implemented for pets that are afraid of fireworks and construction noise and you will find a whole sound library on most online music sources
Fortunately there are quite a few medicines that can be beneficial for these cases. Once we have examined your pet, we will be able to recommend the correct combination of medications for them.
- Over the counter options are the DAP diffuser and Adaptil collars which work by releasing a dog pheromone similar to one released by their mothers when they were small babies. The pheromone works on the brain creating a sense of calm and security.
o Thunder jackets can be very successful for some pets. They work by applying pressure to various pressure points on the body to act like a big secure hug. Most people will place the jacket before the stressful noise event to help lessen anxiety before it escalates as the event goes on. Care must be taken to ensure the pet doesn’t become overheated
- For mild anxiety a newer medication called Zylkene may be suggested. This is made from a milk protein derivative and helps your pet to feel a sense of calm. It is considered a nutraceutical and is not known to have any side effects or drug interactions making it quite safe for most patients. It must be started at least 3-4 weeks before the stressful event to be successful.
- For more severe anxiety we will be able to guide you on whether your pet requires a long term anxiety medication (which must be started at least 1-2 months prior to storm season to be effective) or if a short acting anxiolytic is more appropriate.
Please come in and chat with us if your pet suffers from storm or noise phobias. We know how debilitating this condition is and will be able to help reduce the anxiety and fear and hopefully make this storm season a less stressful one for everyone!