What can I do to help my dog’s fear of thunderstorms?

Thunderstorm phobia is a difficult condition to treat. The anxiety can be triggered hours before a storm’s arrival, probably due to barometric pressure changes that alert the dog in advance.

There is only so much that can be said in a newspaper column, so I highly encourage you to go to the Pet Owner Library on ClevengersCorner.com and search for “storms.” Several detailed articles can be viewed on your computer or printed out for your reference.

In mild cases, simply providing a safe haven for the dog will be enough. That involves crate training and locating the crate in as isolated of an area as possible. (You can also find crate-training advice in CCVC’s Pet Owner Library.) It’s important not to try to soothe the distressed dog, since your attention can act as a positive reinforcement. Adding an anxiety vest or using environmental products containing anti-anxiety pheromones can also be helpful.

For more severe pets, anti-anxiety herbal therapy and/or medications may be needed. Sometimes, these treatments are used for a period of time while training and counter-conditioning are attempted. Other times, these treatments may be lifelong.

Often, we will start with herbal anti-anxiety treatments. Depending on the supplement, sometimes we will recommend doubling the dose on days when storms are expected.

If a dog doesn’t respond to training, herbal therapy, anxiety vests and/or pheromones, it’s time to discuss prescription medications.

Depending on the exact symptoms and the human schedules in a household, a veterinarian may recommend a daily medication designed to lower general anxiety level and/or a medication designed to be dosed only when a storm is anticipated. Although some veterinarians still advocate tranquilizers for storm phobias, evidence suggests these medications can make the fears worse over time since they can cause disorientation. In general, anti-anxiety medications are a better option for most pets.

My favorite medication for intermittent dosing is called Sileo. The gel is absorbed directly through the gums, so there is no need for a dog to swallow the medication. It is a safe, rapidly-acting medication that is FDA-approved for canine noise phobias. In other cases, I will prescribe human anti-anxiety medications like Xanax or Elavil. Just as in people, some individuals will respond better or worse to individual drugs. It may require several attempts or dose adjustments before the magic formula is determined for your particular dog.

I cannot stress enough the importance of behavioral modifications along with drug therapy. In the ideal situation, these drugs can help in the short term or for the worst episodes of anxiety, with the dog’s dependence on them decreasing over time. Think of the similarity with handling anxiety in people.

Prolonged psychotherapy is likely to be a more effective long-term solution to anxiety, even though medications may be needed early in the process and/or for more severe bouts. Relying on drugs alone is not nearly as effective in any species.

The most important advice I can give you is to schedule a consultation appointment with your veterinarian. There are so many individual variables involved in successfully treating any phobia in dogs. The earlier you seek professional assistance, the more likely you are to achieve success. Severe phobias that go long periods of time without treatment can be difficult or impossible to cure.

Dr. Watts is a companion animal general practitioner and owner of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care. He can be reached at 540/428-1000.

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