Integrative Pet Vet: Fireworks, thunderstorms, noise phobias and dogs
Integrative Pet Vet
Phobia of loud noises can have major impacts on the quality of life for many pets and their human companions. An estimated 17-49% of dogs show some anxiety, distress and aversion behaviors such as shaking, trembling, hiding, scratching, urinating and defecating when exposed to noises that frighten them. Some dogs may attempt to “escape” from the sound by chewing through walls, jumping through windows and running away. These escape efforts can lead to self harm, property damage and owner distress. Common triggering sounds include fireworks, thunder, gunshots, vacuums, heavy traffic and some loud machinery. Phobia of one noise does not mean that there will be phobia to other noises. Also, not all dogs with noise phobias have anxiety issues such as separation anxiety.
It is not always clear what initiates phobia reactions to certain noises, but it is likely associated with some type of traumatic or fear-inducing event. The phobia reaction may be reinforced by repeated experiences with the same type of event. This may account for why phobias appear to increase as dogs get older. Some speculate that it is a learned reaction, while others argue that there is a genetic basis. Certain breeds are reported to be predisposed to developing noise phobias. Interestingly stimuli like storms have changes in barometric pressure and cloud cover prior to the storm that can trigger the onset of the phobia. This creates a complex group of stimuli leading up to the storm noise.
It is important to recognize the difference between phobia and fear. Fear is a learned reaction that can be unlearned through processes like gradual exposure and desensitization. Phobia is a learned fear reaction that persists over time, consistently has the same trigger, is irrational and does not provide an adaptive advantage to the dog.
There are numerous approaches that have been advocated for supporting the dog with noise phobias. These options range from basic avoidance to herbs to medications. The response to each therapy is variable, and the overall support plan needs to be tailored to the needs of the individual. Often this means that multiple approaches will need to be used until the right approach or combination is identified.
When avoidance is not possible, attempts can be made to distract or change focus by adding background music or play activity with a toy. Creating a small, secure space can sometimes be beneficial for reducing the phobia reaction. Dog-appeasing-pheromones may aid in calming. Essential oils like lavender have shown calming effects. Use of a properly fitted, wrap, cape or vest like the Thundershirt or similar product has helped dogs cope with distressing noises. Homeopathic products like Rescue Remedy aid in reducing the reactivity and anxiety associated with noise phobia. Herbs like valerian, chamomile and magnolia can have calming or sedating properties. L-theanine and milk casein containing anti-anxiety products have shown benefits for dogs with noise phobias.
Some dogs have such a strong phobia reaction that complete control cannot be achieved even with properly administered combinations of the approaches listed above. In those situations, the addition of carefully selected medications may be needed. Medication selection should be done in conjunction with your veterinarian or a behavior specialist. Finding the right medication and dose may require giving the medication and determining if the effect is sufficient to manage the phobia.
Each individual dog has different levels of sensitivity and reactivity to loud noises. For optimal results, a combination of approaches should be used depending on the intensity of the phobia reaction. Starting prior to the stimulating noise is best whenever possible. Some products like the nutriceuticals can be used on a continuous basis especially during periods with frequent reactive noises.
If you have a dog with noise phobias, contact your veterinarian for suggestions on how to best support your dog companion during the periods of concern. Start early. Don’t wait until the phobia reaction is so severe that the quality of life is damaged.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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