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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Handling Storm Phobias in Dogs

The first question from "Ask The Vet"! Tracy sent the following situation...

I have a Shihtzu who is approx 7 years old. Like many dogs, he is afraid of storms. There seems to be nothing for his fear and crying but to wait for the storm to be over. This is very difficult to do in the middle of the night when we are trying to sleep! He shakes, cries, hides behind furniture, appliances and electronics- many times in dangerous spots full of electrical cords or crannies he gets stuck in & cannot get out so therefore cries louder!
I feel like there is more I should be doing to alleviate his terrible fear and make it easier on the whole family as well. Do you have any suggestions?

An excellent question, Tracy, and one that a lot of people face. The underlying cause of these phobias is not always well understood. Sometimes it happens because the dog is scared or has something bad happen during a storm, and they associate the storm with the frightening or painful event. Other times, we simply don't know why the have a problem. But don't worry, there is help!

First of all, establish a safe place for your dog. It can be a kennel, a closet, under the bed, or just about anywhere. The place should be at least partially enclosed, so your dog feels protected. Try to get your dog used to it ahead of time by making it attractive with toys, treats, and his food bowl. Never use this place as punishment, but make it as pleasant as possible. During a storm, try to encourage him to go there.

Next, try to desensitize him to the storms. This may be difficult or impossible if he is triggered by air pressure or ozone changes. However, if it's just the noise, it often works. Buy an inexpensive CD with storm sounds. Put it in your stereo at a volume that you would expect a real storm to have. If he reacts like it was a real storm, you're actually in luck. Now, spend time each day. For the first week, play the CD at a volume that is barely audible. If he is calm and relaxed, praise and reward him. Do that for 10-15 minutes each day for a week. The next week, turn the volume up slightly. Again, reward the calm, relaxed behavior. Each week increase the volume slightly. If he reaches a point where he becomes frightened, go back to the volume that didn't trigger the fear. Over time (and this does take a long time), he should learn that there is nothing to be afraid of, and he gets rewards for being calm.

Here are some things to avoid:
* DO NOT try and calm him and tell him "it's okay". This actually reinforces the behavior. We're trying to say "It's okay because there's nothing to worry about." What a dog understands is "it's okay to act this way."
* DO NOT punish him or yell at him. This can make his fear during these times even worse, as not only is he afraid of the storm, but he's afraid of your reaction during a storm.
* DO NOT use tranquilizers or sedatives. I know many people who do this, but most behavioral specialists do not recommend it. Acepromazine, benadryl, or similar medications don't treat the underlying problem, they merely make the pet too sleepy to do anything about it. Now, there are some times when there is an indication for these medications, but they should not be the first-line choice.

I would also recommend buying a product called Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). You can find this in many pet supply stores (such as PETsMART and PetCo), as well as online. This a synthetic pheromone that has been shown to reduce anxiety in dogs. It's usually sold as a diffuser (like a plug-in air freshener), which makes it very easy to use. There are also no side effects. The University of Georgia Veterinary College is currently performing a study to see how effective DAP is as the sole treatment in storm phobias. So your question is very timely!

If these alone are not helping him, then find a vet who is good with behavioral treatment. That's not always easy, as there is no specific certification for a general practitioner. There are board-certified veterinary behavioral specialists, but these are rare enough that some states don't have a single one. A vet skilled in behavior treatment will emphasize that medications alone are NOT sufficient for behavioral treatment. You ALWAYS need to do a behavioral modification program (as I've outlined above) at the same time. But when a program such as this isn't sufficient, there are several medications that can be used both long-term and short-term to help reduce anxiety while you work on the behaviors.

I hope this helps with your situation. Keep those questions coming!