Storms and firecrackers Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Friday, 12 December 2014 13:47
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Dr Liesel van der Merwe is a small animal medicine specialist. Send her your questions: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

I saw a headline banner a few weeks ago stating that if the owner stayed calm the dog would stay calm when firecrackers were used.

Well, yes and no. I have three (large) dogs which exhibit signs of thunder phobia and it can be quite a mission to survive a storm.

Noise phobia is the excessive fear of a sound. The dog tries to escape from the sound, which may result in injury, escape or damage to property. Typical signs will be restlessness, panting, drooling, seeking constant contact with the owner, whining and it may build up to messing in the house, digging (on the carpet, floor, couch), chewing and pacing. Dogs may also freeze and withdraw.

Dogs do not outgrow noise phobias; they will get worse with age and become fearful of any loud noise.
There are multiple factors causing fear in storms: lightning flashes, thunder, rain, barometric pressure and static electricity. Dogs will pick up impending thunderstorms long before we do. Because we’re not always at home, we need to take precautionary steps.

Noise phobias need a combination of medical and behavioural therapy as well as environmental modification to manage them. I say ‘manage’, because they are not curable.

Environmental modification aims to provide a safe cave which insulates the animal from the sound and makes them feel protected. Cover a crate in a heavy blanket, in a room away from windows, in a garage or shed. This urge to hide is why fearful dogs will creep under desks, chairs and behind the TV.
Do not close them up in the crate, as this will make them feel trapped. They must enter willingly. Dog runs will usually make dogs worse as they feel trapped and the roofing used often amplifies the loud noises.

Make sure your yard is securely enclosed and your animal carries identification tags and microchips. The collar will often get lost in the chaos. 

Calming caps® and thunder bands® cover the dogs’ eyes. Thundershirt®, a tight calming body wrap, also seems to help. Dogs must be gradually introduced to these before the storm season.

Behavioural management involves desensitisation therapy. Early training and exposure in a controlled, positive way during a puppy’s socialisation period (4-16 weeks) will make the adult more likely to tolerate various situations.

Some dogs are naturally fearful and there appears to be an inherited component to noise phobia, so ask about the parents when getting a puppy. 

Counter-conditioning focuses on changing the dog’s response to the stimuli and teaching it a competing, relaxing behaviour. This is fraught with the possibility of inadvertently rewarding fearful behaviour.

Watch and see which human behaviours calm your dogs. I read a lot and just doing this and ignoring them calms them down. I close curtains and cover the one which is fearful of lightning with a blanket.

During desensitisation you need to be sure there will be no unplanned storms, so start in winter. The only loud sounds need to be part of the program. There are special CDs available, but please read the instructions carefully. You cannot start with full volume. Talk to an animal behaviourist before you start. Animal Behaviour Interest Group (ABIG) is a group of veterinarians and veterinary nurses with a special interest in animal behaviour. You can find them on Facebook.

Medication is not intended as sole treatment and should be accompanied by behavioural and environmental modification. Over-the-counter calming products should generally be used all the time, as their effect is not a direct modification of the nervous system.

Adaptil™ s collar, spray and plug-ins (dog-appeasement pheromones) decrease anxiety, regardless of cause. They should be used together and need to be used constantly. The collar needs to be snug, as body heat activates it.

Anxitane®, a nutraceutical containing the amino acid L-Theanine1 is a supplement for the brain. It is not intended for use in animals with severe phobias, separation anxiety or a known history of aggression. Calmeze®, also a nutraceutical (L-Trryptophan, L-Theanine, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B3) is given daily for long-term phobias and can also be given short-term for anxious situations.

Stronger medication for panic attacks include benzodiazepines (valium, alprazolam, zanor) as well as SSRI’s serotonin reuptake inhibitors and TCA’s (tricyclic antidepressant). A veterinary product, Clomicalm®, is a TCA which is considered appropriate in situations where dogs exhibit anxiety and ritualistic behaviour. Human scheduled medications should be used in consultation with a veterinarian and an animal behaviourist.

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