It’s that time of year again, with fireworks and thunderstorms upsetting dogs throughout the county. Just why is it that some dogs are so disturbed by these events, and what can we do to make them more at ease? I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but here’s what I can tell you.
Certainly loud noises shock and scare many of us, particularly if they are unexpected. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that they scare some animals too. Especially since we generally know when a loud noise will occur, ie, we set off the firecracker or we have heard the weather report, but a dog has no warning of these events. Of course, not all dogs are upset with noises. Trusty old Bosun couldn’t care less about fireworks, Aberdeen, fire sirens, car horns or thunderstorms. Never did. He is a particularly easy going dog, and it may be that his relaxed temperament simply doesn’t ruffle easily. (Try being late with his dinner though!) But it also may be that as a pup, he was exposed to many loud noises. I made a point of blasting the stereo, dropping pots and pans, slamming doors as I fed him, so that he associated pleasure with loud sounds. Isn’t that what hunters do with their retrievers? Shoot a gun over their heads when they’re eating. Acclimatizing a puppy to noise early on certainly should be a part of good socialization. That early exposure can eliminate years of fearful behavior.
What about the adult dog who is already afraid of noises and storms? Noise phobic dogs are often medicated this time of year with either sedatives, tranquilizers or other behavior modifying medications. Traditionally, vets give sedatives around the fourth of July and during periods of heavy thunderstorm activity to allay a dog’s fears. These drugs need to be on board and working a solid hour prior to the start of the noise. They can make dogs very drowsy, and often the dose needs to be adjusted until the patient and owner find the right strength for the dog’s level of anxiety. So it’s a good idea to have the medication well in advance of the noisy event. Lately, animal behaviorists treat thunderstorm fear as they would any other phobia-with obsessive-compulsive drugs which are given the
entire length of the season, generally June through September. A dog’s body gradually adjusts to the drug so the sleepy side effect becomes less of an issue. These meds-think Prozac, reduce anxiety which accompanies triggers like wind, rain or a drop in barometric pressure which signals an impending storm. When given daily, the drug will preempt storm situations which are not predicted.
Having a dog constantly medicated does not sit well with many owners, and some will try less conventional forms of therapy. There are natural remedies which come as over the counter sprays or drops which make an anxious pet less edgy. Owners report variable responses, but they are worth a try. A newer concept in treating thunderstorm anxiety is a containment shirt which swaddles a pet’s chest and abdomen. The idea is that constant pressure exerts a calming effect on the nervous system, and that feeling snug promotes a sense of well-being. Like other modalities, it is best to don the shirt ahead of the fearful event, but some owners report success even after the storm has started.
Noise phobic animals generally remain disturbed by loud sounds or storms most of their lives. But there are newer treatments which can make the summer season much less threatening. Call your vet if your pet needs help.
Celeste Conn, VMD
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