Thunderstorm and Nosie Phobia in Dogs

November 13, 2019
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Thunderstorm and Noise Phobia in Dogs

Written By: Lisa Pinn McFaddin, DVM, GDCVHM, CVSMT, CCOAC, CVA, CVFT

A fear response can be normal and is a necessary evolutionary trait.  The immediate fight-or-flight response that occurs when a prey animal hears a loud noise can save its life.  This reaction should be proportional to the type of stimulus and recovery should be quick and occur without outside intervention.  This recovery process is called habituation and allows an animal to adapt to an ever-changing environment.  An inability to adapt can result in chronic stress, fear, anxiety, and eventually phobia.1,4

Fear is defined as an emotional and physical reaction to real or perceived danger.  The emotional response resolves once the threat is no longer apparent.1,4  Anxiety is defined as a state of unrest or worry in anticipation of a fearful or stressful stimulus.  Unlike fear, anxiety can occur without a real threat or danger, and the response may or may not be proportional.  The reaction to the stimulus may persist after the danger resolves.1,4 Common signs of fear and anxiety in dogs include: ears pinned down or held high and tight, tail tucked, acting clingy, vocalizing, avoiding their owners, hiding, refusal to eat or drink, drooling, panting, shaking, urinating, defecating, vomiting, and a fast heart rate. Dogs that are scared and feel trapped can become defensive and aggressive: growling, biting, or lunging.1,4

Phobias are defined as an intense, excessive, persistent, or irrational fear of a specific object, situation, activity, or person/animal.  The fear is disproportionally greater than the actual danger or threat.1,4

The exact reasons phobias develop are unknown.  It is generally believed phobias occur as a result of genetics, brain chemistry (affecting how an individual copes with stressful situations), and previous environmental exposure (as an adult and puppy).1,4 Regardless of the underlying cause, fear generally causes more fear.  Dogs learn from each stressful episode creating a sort of phobia diary.  The self-perpetuated stress and physical duress experienced during each episode reinforces the dog’s own belief that this level of response is needed each time.  Frequently by the time the phobia is mentioned to a veterinarian the learned response has become a pattern and will not resolve on its own. 1,4

It is worth mentioning adult dogs not exposed to certain noises or thunderstorms before 16 weeks of age may be at a higher risk of developing a phobia.  During this crucial socialization period puppies should be exposed to a wide variety of visual and auditory stimuli to prevent inappropriate fear responses later in life.1,4

Fears, anxieties, and phobias can develop in response to a number of situations, including: thunderstorms, noises, people, smells, and separation.1,2  Roughly 20% of client-owned dogs have some form of thunderstorm phobia.4  The exact percentage with noise phobias is unknown but likely much higher.  Unfortunately only 33% of owners mention a dog’s noise or thunderstorm phobia to their veterinarian.2

Noise phobia and thunderstorm phobias are technically different.  Noise phobias generally involve fear of loud noises such as fireworks, gun fire, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, etc.  Thunderstorm phobias involve visual (lightening, wind, and rain), auditory (thunder, wind, and rain), and physical (changes in barometric pressure) effects.  90% of dogs with thunderstorm phobia also have documented noise phobias, but only 75% of dogs with noise phobias have thunderstorm phobias.2,3

Dogs with phobias should never be forced to “face their fears” or punished.  This tactic causes increased stress, fear, and anxiety.1  Treatment of any phobia should be multifaceted addressing the owner’s response to their dog, the environment, natural calming aids, and prescription drugs if needed.  One study demonstrated 93% of noise and thunderstorm phobic dogs had a significant reduction in their anxiety when a combination of medication and environmental modification were employed.4

Dogs are very connected to their owners and take cues from and sometimes mimic their behavior.  A calm owner can help relax their dog, but an agitated anxious owner can heighten the fear response exhibited by their dog.1  Establishing a routine is very helpful for dog and owner.  This pattern sets the baseline for handling a noise phobic episode.1

Minimizing exposure to the stressful even is ideal but not often practical.  Closing the curtains, windows, or blinds can reduce the visual effect of thunderstorms and fireworks.4   Desensitization using recordings of the offending sounds can be used.  This approach should be accompanied by calming rituals to teach the dog how to cope with the sound.1,4  Playing soothing music or white noise to mask the sound can help distract and soothe phobic dogs.4

Some dogs try to hide before and during a thunderstorm or noise phobic event.  This is a normal response, and providing a safe easily accessible hiding spot, such as a crate or small room, can be very helpful.  The location should be available when owners are home or away.1,2  Distraction with training exercises, playing, and food puzzles can also be very helpful.1,4

Gently placing cotton balls in the dog’s ears or using canine ear muffs (Mutt Muffs®) help dampen sound.  Thundershirts® and Thundercaps® provide physical protective barriers and comfort for dogs.  Thundershirts® are a form-fitting breathable fabric which act like a vest.  The theory is dogs will be comforted by the light pressure provided by the vest, similar to a swaddled baby.  Thundercaps® are a hood made of see-through fabric which reduces visual stimuli for dogs.  Not all dogs like physical objects touching them.  Dogs should not be forced to wear materials they find irritating or uncomfortable.

Bringing your dog to see the fireworks is never recommended.  The sound and sight is often overwhelming and stressful for even non-phobic canines.  The Fourth of July is one of the busiest times in animal shelters because so many dogs become scared and run away.  Avoid making your dog a statistic and leave them at home.1, 2

Adaptil® is a synthetic pheromone based on a natural Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) produced by nursing female dogs.  This pheromone has a calming and comforting effect on both juvenile and adult dogs.  Adaptil comes as a plug-in, spray, and collar. Pheromones can be used alone or in combination with other supplements or medications.

Aromatherapy, specifically diffusing lavender or using lavender/chamomile collars, can be very calming for dogs.4  Essential oils can be very helpful when used properly with canine companions.  Discuss the appropriate use of essential oils with your veterinarian before implementation.

There are an overwhelming number of over-the-counter supplements for your dog. We will discuss two veterinary recommended options: Composure Pro® and Nutricalm®. The goal of a calming supplement is to gently relax the dog without a heavy sedative effect.  Discuss with your veterinarian before starting any calming nutraceutical, and if you would prefer to try an over-the-counter option first.

Composure Pro® is a chewable nutraceutical created by Vetri Science.  The supplement contains Thiamine, L-Tryptophan, Colostrum Calming Complex (C3), and L-Theanine.  Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is an essential micronutrient for normal brain function, and supplementation has been shown to have anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) properties.6 Tryptophan is an amino acid which acts as a serotonin (happy neurotransmitter) precursor, and supplementation has been shown to reduce anxiety in people and dogs.6  C3 is a patented mixture of bioactive proteins from microfiltered bovine colostrum. Colostrum is a specialized form of milk produced shortly after any mammal is born.  L-Theanine is an amino acid shown to reduce anxiety and stress by increasing several neurotransmitters shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety (GABA, serotonin, and dopamine). L-Theanine’s effects on GABA levels have been studied the most and are thought to be the primary source of its anxiolytic effects.6

Nutricalm® and Liquid Nutricalm® are made by Robert Silver through Rx Vitamins for Pets.  Both products contain L-Theanine, L-Tryptophan, Valerian Root extract, Ashwaganda extract, Catnip extract, Magnesium aspartate, and Calcium aspartate. Valerian root extract comes from the plant Valeriana officinalis. This herb has been shown through numerous studies to improve sleep and reduce anxiety by inhibiting the metabolism and reuptake of GABA.  Its anxiolytic effects are frequently compared to Valium.6  Ashwaganda extract is from the plant Withania somnifera.  The herb is considered an adaptogen and helps the immune system and central nervous system function properly especially during times of stress.6  Catnip extract, from the Nepeta cataria plant, has a sedative and calming effect on the central nervous system.6 Magnesium and Calcium supplementation maintain and improve muscle and nerve function.6

For dogs with mild to moderate noise or thunderstorm phobias supplements and environmental modification may be enough to alleviate their anxiety.  Dogs with severe thunderstorm and noise phobias may require prescription medications.  The two most common drugs used are Alprazolam (Xanax) and Trazadone.  Alprazolam is a benzodiazepine sedative and tranquilizer in the same family as Valium. This medication is most commonly used on an as-needed basis for its anxiolytic effects.  Trazadone is a serotonin antagonist and reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used for its antidepressant, anxiolytic, and sedative properties in dogs. Trazadone can be used when needed or longer-term.  Both pharmaceutical drugs have potential side effects and known drug interactions.  Use of these medications should be discussed with your veterinarian to ensure your dog is healthy enough and would benefit from their implementation.

Historically veterinarians prescribed a sedative known as Acepromazine, a phenothiazine sedative and tranquilizer.  When used in combination with anxiolytic medications it can be very effective as a premedication for surgery.  Use of acepromazine as a sole medication for phobias is inappropriate and no longer recommended.  Studies have shown dogs taking acepromazine are still anxious but too sedate to display classic signs of anxiety or fear.

The development of thunderstorm and noise phobia in dogs is complex, and the treatment requires a multimodal approach.  Your veterinarian is a great resource and advocate for your dog.  If your dog suffers from thunderstorm or noise phobias please talk to your veterinarian.  With the right tools and approach your dog’s anxiety and fear can be reduced and their quality of life improved.

References

1DePorter, T. 2011, ‘Fears, Anxieties and Phobias in Dogs and Cats’, Veterinary Information Network, viewed 28 June 2018, https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4953006.

2Lundgren, B, 2010, “Fireworks Fear in Pets”, Veterinary Information Network, viewed 28 June 2018, https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=19239&id=4952947.

3Overall, KL, 2015, ‘Noise, Reactivity and Cognition in Dogs: Parsing Risk Factors and Phenotypic Plasticity’, Truft’s Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetic Conference, viewed 28 June 2018, https://www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?id=6976363&pid=12513&.

4Martin, KM, 2015, ‘Thunderstorm and Noise Phobia’, Wild West Veterinary Conference, viewed 28 June 2018, https://www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?id=7432322&pid=15459&.

5Vignisse, J et al., 2017, ‘Thiamine and benfotiamine prevent stress-induced suppression of hippocampal neurogenesis in mice exposed to predation without affecting brain thiamine diphosphate levels’, Molecular and cellular neurosciences, Vol 82(0), pg 126-136.

6Silver, R, ‘Liquid Nutricalm Technical Report’. Viewed 19 June 2014, http://rxvitamins.org/Resources/Liquid%20NutriCalm%20TR%20-%202012.pdf.

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