This time of year I’m always reminded of one of my favorite pets, Mackay, a female Australian Shepherd. She was the best dog in every way, with just one flaw, as she aged she developed a terrible fear of thunderstorms and fireworks. The sound of thunder or fireworks would make her bolt and run away if she was loose or try to destroy doors or any object keeping her from running away. I learned to watch the weather forecast and prepare for upcoming storms or celebrations involving fireworks. Thunderstorm and firework season is upon us, so I wanted to share some information to help other people who might have a pet that is fearful or becomes nervous from loud noises.
First and foremost is that your pet needs to be in a safe and secure environment. We often see pets that are injured because they run away or the pet gets lost and cannot find its way home. (As a side note, any pet that has noise anxiety and prone to run should have a microchip.) If your cat or dog has been acclimated to its carrier, their carrier is a familiar place for them to hide and be comfortable. Close windows and doors and try to confine the pets to the quietest area of the house. Adding some background music can be helpful, preferably something with a heavy beat to mute the other noise. Turning on a fan is also a good source of “white noise” and it keeps the pet cool. Another consideration for a nervous dog is having a calm companion dog to model good behavior and be a source of calmness.
There are multiple behavioral modification options that can be used. You need to plan ahead though; behavioral training takes time, patience and repetition. Desensitization is exposing the pet to recordings of thunder and other loud noises. There are many recordings online available. However, desensitization alone usually isn’t successful, and counter-conditioning training is also necessary. One example of counter conditioning is feeding or playing with the pet during a low-level stressful event like playing the thunder sounds at a low level. It is important to remember not to reward the pet when the dog is acting fearful and not to show panic or fear yourself. There are many other ways to approach behavioral management, working with your veterinarian or an experienced dog behavior trainer is the best first step.
There are behavioral modifying medications that are also available. None of these drugs are “one size fits all,” not all pets respond consistently to behavioral medication. For short-term treatment, fast-acting drugs, like Valium and Xanax, can be effective. For pets with long-term anxiety issues medications such as Prozac may be a more appropriate choice. Historically, acepromazine, a tranquilizer has been used and basically helps by making the pet sleepy, but doesn’t help decrease anxiety. Again, working with your veterinarian to help decide if and what medication fits your pet’s needs is the first step. All these medications can have side effects and current physical exams and sometimes blood testing is necessary to prescribe them.
I have started recommending anxiety wraps, such as the Thundershirt, more frequently and am hearing good results from many clients. The thought behind anxiety wraps is that pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system. Basically, the shirt wraps on the cat or dog snugly and leads to a decrease in anxious symptoms related to multiple causes. Definitely worth trying, as there are no side effects to your pet, just your wallet- but they aren’t that expensive.
Another consideration is pheromone therapy. A pheromone product is available for dogs called Adaptil, it mimics the properties of the natural pheromones of the lactating female that give their puppies a sense of well-being and reassurance. For cats, the product is Feliway, a synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure. Pheromone products are available in collars, plug-in diffusers, and sprays. Again, the risk of side effects is low, and pheromone therapy can be a useful part of a program to reduce anxiety in your pet.
As usual, feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns, firstname.lastname@example.org, visit our Wilderness Animal Hospital Facebook page and check out our website. I look forward to seeing you all at the Maple Valley Farmers Market this summer.