Many dogs suffer from anxiety due to loud noises. Thunderstorms and fireworks are the two most common noises that dogs fear. Many dogs with separation anxiety also will be afraid of thunderstorms and loud noises.
Some dogs may be so terrified during thunderstorms that they may cause injury to themselves and/or damage their environment. These are the dogs that really need to be on a maintenance anti-anxiety medication for the duration of the storm season, then weaned off the medication slowly in the fall.
The top choices for maintenance medications are Fluoxetine (Reconcile) or Clomipramine (Clomicalm). When the storm actually arrives, a fast-acting medication, in addition to the maintenance medication, is recommended. These may include Alprazolam or Clonazepam. Acepromazine is a sedative and should never be used alone for thunderstorm anxiety since it can make dogs more sensitive to noise and it does not treat the anxiety. However, it can be used in conjunction with the medications above, in low doses, if needed. Storm Defender Capes or Thundershirts also can help some animals feel safer during a storm. Go to www.stormdefender.com or www.thundershirt.com for more information.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone products can be used to help calm and soothe fearful dogs. It comes in a collar, spray or a diffuser. If the diffusers are used, be sure to get enough to cover the square footage where the dog spends most of its time or it won’t be effective. Many behaviorists prefer the collars. Behavior modification must be done in addition to medications for the behavior to change. There is no such thing as a magic pill.
Desensitization sessions should be short (around five minutes each) and done several times a day 3-5 days a week.
Counter-conditioning relies on getting the dog to feel relaxed during storms by distracting the dog with commands, puzzle toys, or treats only if they are in a relaxed state. In other words, you are rewarding the relaxed behavior and not the anxious behavior. The theory is a relaxed dog can’t be an anxious dog at the same time. Do not coddle an anxious pet because you are rewarding the anxious behavior. Instead, act happy and upbeat so you are associating the storm as a happy event. Playing white noise (fan, air conditioner, radio, TV) during the storm may be helpful as well. Training them to relax and follow commands when there is not a storm is very important. Once a storm arrives it is much harder for them to follow commands if they are not already good at obeying.
There are many natural calming products available as well that may be helpful but always make sure to ask your veterinarian before using these. Some of these products cannot be used with the medications discussed above or with medications your pet may already be taking.
Kim Donovan, D.V.M., is an associate veterinarian and medical director at Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital in Seminole with 13 years experience and a special interest in feline medicine.