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Canine Thunderstorm Fear

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

On the bed, off the bed, salivate, drool, pant, whine, spread drool on the bed, off the bed, whine, whimper, shake, on the bed, off the bed......refuse to be consoled!

This was my life with Muffy during every thunderstorm until it became my life with Muffy during every rain event. My sweet little Shih Tzu was becoming more and more fearful of Southeast Missouri weather events. She could not be consoled in spite of my husband's insistence to her that all was okay. She was not okay. Her dilated pupils, drooling and panting were signs of the "fight or flight" response of a panicked animal. Fortunately she did not progress to the point of having uncontrolled urine or stool to clean up, but many thunderstorm phobic dogs do. Other symptoms are attempting to escape, sometimes through walls, doors, or carpet surfaces and some dogs vocalize uncontrollably. Yet other dogs are paralyzed with fear and stand in a frozen position. These exaggerated responses are unhealthy expressions of fear.

Fear is an appropriate response that keeps animals safe. An appropriate response to a threatening weather event is to find a safe place---and feel SAFE. In fact that is the goal for a thunderstorm fearful dog. When the weather starts to threaten, a dog should be allowed access to a place of safety and be restful in that place. Some kennel-trained dogs will settle if they are place in their kennel in a quiet lower level or interior room.

How can a dog that is overwhelmingly fearful of thunderstorms be re-trained? Ten veterinarians will likely give 10 different answers. Fortunately that means there are multiple treatments. Teach relaxation techniques in a safe place and give your dog access. Then use those techniques during very light weather events. This is not hard to teach and is, in fact, fun. Training takes a while but is worth the while. We have printouts that will teach you how. Do not tell your dog it is OK when he is exhibiting fear. He knows its not. Also don't praise his fearful behavior with attention because that reinforces the behavior. Allow him contact, though, if he wants. Watch a relaxing television show in a quiet area and try to ignore the fearful behavior.

If your dog's fear has progressed to a more severe level don't give up. Training aids can help as many as 20 - 30 % of dogs. The Thundershirt is worth a try. Getting it on can be tricky if he is already upset and he should be supervised when wearing the shirt, but it is definitely worth a go. Also, about a third of dogs are soothed by neutraceuticals available over-the-counter. Solloquin and Zylkene are both non-prescription products that are safe to give orally and relieve anxiety. These products are very safe and worth a try. Cost is their downside and some dogs are better to take them daily during thunderstorm season.

Dogs that are destructive and threaten to hurt themselves or property need prescription medications. In the past, tranquilizers have been used for thunderstorm phobic dogs. Phenothiazine tranquilizers slow the dog down and prevent destructive behavior, but unfortunately do nothing to relieve the fear. The tranquilizer must be given hours before the thunderstorm starts, which is a real problem in Southeast Missouri! Alprazolam is recommended for fearful dogs. It has anti-anxiety properties and creates some drowsiness. Alprazolam should be given before the storm starts but will still have some effect if given after the anxiety has begun. A study using clomipramine and alprazolam together helped about 50% of dogs. The downside of the prescription medications is the cost, side effects, and daily administration.

Muffy's thunderstorm fear gradually improved and eventually disappeared. I am happy to report that after more than a decade of thunderstorm anxiety, her last three years were fear free. Muffy had advanced heart disease, which was managed with conventional medications. As our Animal Hospital introduced acupuncture and herbal medicine into the practice, I began using those modalities to compliment Muffy’s heart medications. The added benefit was that her thunderstorm phobia dissipated. I soon learned that her herbal medications were also used in the treatment of certain anxieties.

Four years later I presented a proposal to the Chi Institute to research thunderstorm anxiety treatment with acupuncture and herbal medication. The proposal was approved and the research has demonstrated a favorable response. I was pleased to gain funding for an additional 12 cases this year. The study is accepting participants at this time. For information please call our office at 573 334 0070.

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