Visiting Vet: Helping phobic dogs cope with thunder

The wind is mighty today. Trees flail wildly. Debris flies around the yard. Storm’s a’coming. Across the Island, dogs with thunderstorm phobias cower in bathrooms, basements, and under beds. They dig holes in their masters’ mattresses and leave puddles on the floor.

What exactly is frightening these panic-stricken pups? Booming thunder? Whistling wind and pounding rain? The lightning flash? Clients call to renew prescriptions for tranquilizers and anti-anxiety drugs while I cower in the corner myself, dreading the inevitable, endless “desensitization and counter-conditioning” talks.

It’s not that I mind chatting. It’s just that many of our standard recommendations for coping with thunderstorm anxiety are less effective than we would like. I feel ridiculous advising people to play recordings of thunder every day while feeding Nervous Nellie liverwurst, when I know the odds of success are slim. Nonetheless, it’s still worthwhile to try these time-honored methods with shaking shepherds and timorous terriers.

Start with environmental modifications to mask the sights and sounds of the storm. Close the curtains. Pull the blinds. Provide Nellie with a den to hide in, far away from the windows. A big cardboard box in the basement, a crate covered with a blanket, a dog bed in a closet. Use a white noise machine or radio tuned to the static between stations to drown out scary sounds. Give drugs.

In the past, tranquilizers like acepromazine were most frequently prescribed. These make Nellie dopey but won’t directly reduce anxiety. The relatively slow onset and long duration make these medications less than ideal for our purpose, although for some individuals they work great. Nowadays, veterinarians often prescribe anti-anxiety drugs like alprazolam (commonly known as Xanax), which have a rapid onset and shorter duration. For the majority of cowardly canines, a combination of environmental and pharmacological techniques does the trick.

Then there are the deeply phobic dogs that need more than a crate and a chill pill. For these animals, veterinarians recommend classic behavioral modification — a combination of desensitization and counter-conditioning. In desensitization an animal is exposed to a stimulus very gradually so that she slowly becomes habituated to it.

But how do we do this? It’s not like one can order up a daily squall and adjust the volume. We used to tell people to get a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which has booming percussion that’s not a bad approximation of thunder. Today you can purchase thunderstorm CDs specifically for desensitizing dogs. The idea is to play the CD quietly every day. Then, as Nellie becomes accustomed to it, gradually increase the volume until she can sit mellowly in the room while it blasts full force. When a real storm arrives, you put on the CD and supposedly Nellie will no longer be afraid.

Desensitization is usually paired with “counter-conditioning,” in which you try to convince Nellie storms are fun. Rather than huddling in the closet with her, making worried mommy noises while the maelstrom rages, you model a happy, upbeat attitude and do special, fun activities. Play ball or tug of war. Give her a delicious treat with each clap of thunder or lightning bolt. See, Nellie! Aren’t storms wonderful? Sounds good. The problem is, it doesn’t work very well.

Why not? Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a well-known professor at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine specializing in animal behavior, has proposed that dogs may actually be experiencing small shocks of static electricity during thunderstorms. Noting the way storm-phobic dogs often hide in ways that put them in contact with conductive surfaces (think of dogs squeezing behind toilets or hiding under basement sinks wrapped around the plumbing pipes), he theorizes that these animals may literally be trying to ground themselves. If this is true, then it makes sense that simple desensitization to noise, and anti-anxiety drugs, are only partially effective.

Dr. Dodman has had owners try rubbing phobic dogs’ feet with fabric softener sheets or even spritzing them with antistatic sprays to alleviate the static electricity. In line with this theory, there is a commercial product on the market called Storm Defender® cape. A snazzy body suit with a “special metallic lining,” it is touted to protect the pup by reducing static electricity build-up during thunderstorms. The idea is that after a few storms wearing the coat, Nellie will realize that the cape eliminates that shocky feeling, and she will stop being afraid. Really?

A 2009 study entitled “Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported antistatic cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners reports” indicated that 70 percent of dogs using the Storm Defender® showed less anxiety by the fourth storm. Wow! Seventy percent improved! That’s amazing…

…Except for one catch. Nearly as many dogs wearing the placebo cape also showed less anxiety. What’s up with that? Why would a placebo garment reduce anxiety? Which brings us to the Thundershirt®. This snugly fitting body wrap looks a lot like the Storm Defender®, sans “special metallic lining.” This product claims that the gentle body pressure it creates has a calming effect on the central nervous system. It may sound like hocus-pocus but, if you think about it, mothers have been soothing crying babies for centuries by wrapping them up in swaddling blankets.

Neither product has been adequately studied to confirm or disprove their efficacy. At worst, they are harmless. At best, who knows, maybe they help.

Today’s tempest has passed, but thunderstorm season is here. If you have a pusillanimous pup with a history of storm phobias, plan ahead. Don’t wait for the deluge to descend, sending Nellie into a dither. Set up that hidey-hole in the basement today. Get your white noise machine. Start your behavior modification program. Call your veterinarian in advance so you have that anti-anxiety medication on hand when you need it.

And if you want to try something a little different, order a Thundershirt® or a Storm Defender®. Then be sure to let me know if you think it works.