Dogs and thunderstorms

Buck resting

©2014 Laurie Anne Walden

Summer is coming, and here in the South that means afternoon thunderstorms.  Some weeks we hear thunder just about every day.  Last week was one of those weeks, and our dog Buck had a hard time of it.

He would have had a harder time if we had not been giving him anti-anxiety meds.  As a veterinarian and an owner of a storm-phobic dog, I know how important it is to treat noise phobias.  They tend to build on themselves and get worse with time, so starting treatment early is best.  We’ve had Buck since he was about a year old and he started showing signs of thunderstorm phobia when he was about two.

Anyone who has had a noise-phobic dog understands how traumatic thunderstorms or fireworks can be.  Some dogs will chew through their crates and injure themselves in their panic.  Others withdraw and become quiet, but they need treatment too.  Buck is only three now, and so far he hasn’t been destructive; he pants, paces, and gets as far away from windows as he can (which sometimes includes trying to scrabble through a closed door).

Up until now, we’ve been using diazepam (Valium) for Buck.  It’s helped, but now that his prescription is finished, I’m switching him to alprazolam (Xanax) to see how that goes.  Both diazepam and alprazolam are benzodiazepines, so they both combat anxiety.  Alprazolam causes less sedation than diazepam and (theoretically) works better than diazepam if the dog is already anxious by the time you give it.  For prevention of anxiety, both drugs work better if given an hour or two before the noise trigger occurs.  Buck tends to show signs of anxiety long before I ever hear a clap of thunder — either because his hearing is sharper or because he is detecting other storm-related environmental changes — so I will be interested to see if there is a difference with the change of drug.

Benzodiazepines are controlled substances, so your vet must be the person to decide whether they are right for your dog.  Interestingly enough, I had a phone call from the pharmacy where I called in Buck’s alprazolam prescription.  They asked if another vet from my clinic could verify that it was OK to fill the prescription, since it’s a controlled drug and it’s for my own household.  This was the first time I’ve gotten that question, but I thought it made sense.

Benzodiazepines are not the only drugs that are useful for storm phobia.  Antidepressants can be used to reduce overall anxiety, especially when noise phobia is concurrent with other anxiety disorders, like separation anxiety. An antidepressant would be given daily, whereas an anxiolytic (like a benzodiazepine) is given as needed when a noise trigger is expected.  What does not work is the old standby, acepromazine.  Ace is a sedative but it has no anxiolytic properties, so it will make a noise-phobic dog quiet even if he is still terrified.  Since acepromazine is a dissociative agent, it can also make the dog less able to understand what’s happening around him, which can increase his fear.

There are a number of non-drug therapies and behavioral interventions as well.  We have not tried any of them for Buck; his level of anxiety was increasing, and in my judgment it was time to cut to the chase.  I have heard anecdotal evidence that anxiety wraps, which apply gentle pressure to the thorax, help some pets; but I am not aware of any controlled scientific studies that have evaluated them as a treatment for noise phobia.

There is also anecdotal evidence that desensitization CD’s, which are designed to reduce the reaction to specific sounds, can work.  I tried one of these years ago for one of our dogs who was fireworks-phobic.  Although she became nicely desensitized to the CD, she was still afraid of real-life fireworks.  To be fair, it might have worked better if we had started it earlier; she was a middle-aged dog with an established history of noise phobia by the time we tried it.  She responded well to diazepam until her problem was solved by going deaf in old age.  In one clinical study, desensitization CD’s did not work well for storm phobia in particular, for a variety of speculated reasons.  I wonder if dogs can detect environmental changes like barometric pressure or ozone that act as anxiety triggers once they have learned to associate them with thunder.

For further reading, here are two excellent articles by Dr. Karen Overall:

Storm Phobias
Noise reactivities and phobias in dogs: Behavior modification strategies

If your dog is showing signs of noise-related anxiety, have a chat with your veterinarian.  It helps enormously to address it early.  Behavior modification and other non-drug therapies might be sufficient, but my experience with patients and my own dogs is that medication is often required and is sometimes the most humane choice.

p.s.  In case you’re wondering, Buck (pictured above) is a Treeing Walker Coonhound from Carolina Loving Hound Rescue.
p.p.s.  He is not on Valium in the photo.  That is his normal state when he is not baying his head off at something.

© Laurie Anne Walden, 2014