|Bosca loves lots of things, but one thing he really loathes is storms. He's not alone - many dogs suffer from storm phobia.|
Do you live with a companion animal that suffers from a phobia? Storm phobias, especially in dogs, are not uncommon. Affected animals may display mild signs or suffer from extreme panic reactions and destructive
behaviour. Our family dog Bosca panics during storms and can become inconsolable, even trying to escape.
Later this year, the Australian VeterinaryAssociation Behaviour Interest Group (AVBIG) will host a webinar on storm phobias, discussing symptoms, comorbidities and management.
Elle Parker from AVBIG took some time out to give us the low-down.
What are the signs of storm phobia?
Signs of anxiety / stress / panic that occur temporally associated with storms or other phenomena that have become associated with storms (wind, rain, darkening sky etc). Most commonly dogs will vocalise, pant, pace, become clingy and attention-seeking. They may hide, cower, tremble, salivate, defecate or urinate. They may become unresponsive to commands and stop eating. Some will seek certain places in the home such as bathroom or bathtub.
Is it usually accompanied by other fears and phobias, such as noise phobia, or is it more often very specific to storms?
Can be either.
It is VERY commonly part of a more complex or general anxiety disorder or co-morbid with noise sensitivity or separation distress.
Some dogs seem to only have focal storm phobia with no other observed problems.
Some dogs may develop storm phobia secondary to a trauma or fearful event - being outside when lightning strikes.
Some are genetically predisposed and in some dogs it manifests in social maturity.
How common is storm phobia?
I don't have an exact percentage figure for you but it is super common! Anecdotally it appears to effect almost a third to a half of the dogs I see in referral behaviour practice and certainly a few in every 10 I see in general practice.
What is the biggest misconception about treating storm phobias?
THAT ACP [acepromazine] SHOULD BE USED!
Acepromazine is contraindicated in storm or noise phobia (or any other stressful event) because:
- it increases noise sensitivity
- it is sedative but NOT anxiolytic ie it blunts motor responses and perceptual appraisal but doesn't make the animal feel better - they are still just as afraid and stressed but less able to accurately perceive information or employ behavioural coping strategies.
That owners should ignore the dog or refuse to comfort it. This is false.
The dog is behaving due to the underlying emotional response and the owner should do everything possible to improve the emotional state and make the dog feel better i.e. try to calm it down by reassuring it or giving it attention, soothing, words, praise or petting / massage. [Ed. This is really interesting as when I studied we were taught that comforting frightened dogs during storms “rewarded” bad behaviour and should be discouraged. I think this remains a common misconception.]
There is misleading information re if people comfort animals showing distressed behaviour they will reinforce the fear but fear is an emotion not a behaviour and thus cannot be reinforced. The only thing that makes an anxious animal feel better is the abating of that fear.
What are the key strategies veterinarians can employ to help clients with animals with storm phobias? (A lot of clients use thunder jackets- do these work?)
Thunder shirts are hit and miss, they seem to work really well for some dogs but make others more stressed. The dogs may need to be desensitised or counter-conditioned to them. Some dogs who do not tolerate tactile stuff may hate it. I also think that sometimes people misinterpret dogs being inhibited with them being calm (ie they freeze and reduce their motion and outward signs but are actually more stressed by the shirt).
Other strategies should include a multi-modal approach:
- Psychotropic medication (Benzodiazipines's, Trazodone, Clonidine or a combination of these). Perhaps on top of a long-term baseline SSRI if the dog has more generalised anxiety issues [Ed. you will need to consult with a veterinarian before your dog commences any medication].
- Behaviour modification: desensisation and counter-conditioning to low levels of noise on youtube or CDs
- Management: trying to prevent or dampen auditory and visual stimuli that predict a storm (play background music, close curtains etc)
- Create a Safe Spot or Zen Den [Ed. I think I need a zen den for me!]
How can vets find out more?
- Contact a vet with an interest in behaviour or a member of the Australian New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS).
- Email AVBIG!
- Jump on to one of the Facebook discussion groups (AVBIG or behaviour vet discussion group) and ask questions.
- The BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine has a great section on noise/ storm phobia!
Thank you Elle for your time. Members of AVBIG can attend the webinar in September at no cost.