Visiting Veterinarian

Plan for the boom times

By Michele Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - June 7, 2007


Did that scare you? More to the point, did it scare your dog? I'm going to get the jump on the Fourth of July this year by reminding all you owners of jumpy dogs that the fireworks are coming up soon. Please don't page me while I'm watching the parade to ask for a prescription for tranquilizers. It's also thunderstorm season, motorcycle/moped season, and turn-down-that-music-you-rowdy-college-kids-don't-you-know-what-time-it-is season. This can be a noisy Island in the summer, so let's plan ahead.

Fear of loud and unusual noises is a common occurrence in dogs. Think about it. It makes sense for an animal to be afraid of things stentorian and unexpected. Fear inspires a dog to be alert, to seek shelter and safety from whatever is making that racket. This is a good survival tactic. But in some individuals, the normal physiological and behavioral responses get exaggerated, leading to a case of full-blown phobia.

Anxious dogs, like anxious people, tend to worry about many things. I love it when people tell frightened kids "There's nothing to be afraid of." Of course there's something to be afraid of. There's a whole world of alarming stuff out there. Ear-splitting thunder. Electrifying lightning. Exploding fireworks. Dangerous mopeds. No, you don't really mean that there is nothing to be afraid of. What you mean is that the level of fear being exhibited does not correlate rationally to the level of danger.

But that's the point. It's not rational. In fact, that's my dictionary's definition of a phobia. "A persistent, abnormal, or illogical fear of a specific thing or situation." Logic has nothing to do with it. I know intellectually that I am in more danger driving to the airport than flying in the sky. That doesn't alleviate my pteromerhanophobia.

But I digress. If you have a Nervous Nellie at home, it's likely that there is more than one stimulus that sets her off. Nellie may manifest her fear of loud noises in a variety of ways, ranging from the relatively benign coping mechanism of hiding under the bed, to the annoying habit of destroying and soiling the house, to the life-threatening response of jumping out the window. You want to know what you can do to help.

How to help

To begin with, don't get mad at her and don't punish her. Noise phobias and other behavior problems occur as the result of genetics, temperament, and experience. She doesn't do it on purpose and punishment will only make things worse. There are several different approaches to working with noise phobias: avoidance, desensitization with counter-conditioning, and medication. Let's look at these one at a time.

Avoidance, when possible, is the simplest option. Just steer clear of things that go Boom. Don't take Nellie hunting. Don't take her to the Independence Day festivities. Skip the Harley Davidson convention and the annual Ride to the Rock. Don't move in next door to the fire station, or the firing range. Of course, there's not much you can do about the weather, but you can lessen the impact of a thunderstorm in several ways. If we're expecting a storm, keep Nellie in an interior room with no windows so she doesn't see the lightning. Give her a "den" to hide in. Use a "white noise" machine or play the radio or television to drown out the sounds of rain, wind, and thunder. Beyond that, you need to move on to other methods of anxiety control.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are the cornerstones of all behavioral modification. You have to plan ahead. You can't wait until Nellie is in the throes of a panic attack. Begin by gradually and deliberately exposing her to a modified version of the sound that scares her. You can buy commercial recordings of noises like thunder and fireworks or you can make your own. Start off playing the recording very softly, while rewarding her with something wonderful. This could be a delicious treat, a fun game, or just a lot of loving - whatever pleases Nellie the most. As she becomes accustomed to the low-volume stimulus, slowly make it louder, never getting so loud as to provoke fear. Repeat this process, ever so patiently, day after day, louder and louder.

Behavioral modification takes perseverance, and it still may not calm Nellie sufficiently. In that case, it's time for medication. The most benign choice is a product like D.A.P., which stands for dog-appeasing pheromone. Environmental sprays like D.A.P. are supposed to lessen anxiety by simulating the scent of a substance normally released by a mother dog when nursing her puppies. We can't detect the odor, but Nellie can. I have seen it be helpful in mild cases, but really phobic dogs need really serious drugs.

Xanax relaxes

If Nellie is scared of something episodic and predictable, like fireworks, we can medicate her just for those events. Even dogs who are scared of thunderstorms can often be managed on an "as needed" basis, as long as you give the medications as soon as you suspect bad weather is coming. My drug of choice these days is the anti-anxiety alprazolam, commonly known by the brand name Xanax. It has a fast onset, lasts long enough but not too long, and can be dosed "to effect."

A note: I used to rely on a tranquilizer called acepromazine. If you are still using it, that's okay, but the current thinking is that acepromazine doesn't really take away the fear. It just sedates Nellie so she's too dopey to act up. Kind of like taking Benadryl on the airplane so you will sleep, instead of taking an anti-anxiety drug like Valium so you don't feel scared. Acepromazine may be useful in specific cases, but there are better choices available these days. As someone who is terrified of flying myself (in case you hadn't figured that out yet), I know from personal experience that being sleepy does not eliminate the feelings of panic. An anti-anxiety drug does.

Dogs with frequent and severe phobias and anxieties may need daily psychotropic medications. There are a few veterinary products officially approved for use in dogs (such as Clomicalm and Reconcile for separation anxiety) but your veterinarian can also discuss with you options of various antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications from the human pharmacy that may be helpful. Because these uses are considered "off label," some veterinarians may require you to sign a release form. A combination of one of these daily medications along with an "as needed" anti-anxiety drug is the most effective regimen. Remember that some of these drugs can take weeks to months to kick in, so get started early if you are anticipating a seasonal problem.

Okay. That's it. If you have a Nervous Nellie who's afraid of loud noises, it comes down to this. Avoidance. Desensitization with counter-conditioning. Drugs. Plan ahead. Don't page me during the parade. Enjoy the summer. Boom.