Dealing with your pet?s fear of fireworks and thunderstorms Print E-mail
News - Rubrieke
Tuesday, 27 January 2009 01:18
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In this column a veterinarian provides practical assistance for common problems in companion animals. Dr Liesel van der Merwe qualified as a veterinarian from Onderstepoort in 1992. She worked in Johannesburg as a small animal general practitioner for four years before returning to Onderstepoort to specialise in canine and feline medicine. She has remained at Onderstepoort ever since and is a specialist physician in the animal teaching hospital and a senior lecturer in the section of small animal medicine. Equine issues will be referred to an equine veterinarian, Dr Ingrid Cilliers. Send your questions to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Dr Liesel van der Merwe

Highveld thunderstorms provide a trying time for animals with noise phobias and their owners. Fear is a normal and often life-saving response and only becomes a problem when it is unfounded and the animal does not get used to whatever is causing the fear. Phobias are a severe acute form of fear. Phobic dogs hyperventilate, shiver, try to hide and may even urinate and defecate. Animals with phobias often exhibit an all-or-nothing response regardless of the severity of the stimulus.

Management involves desensitisation, counter-conditioning and medication.

Phobic dogs need a safe den area to hide during a storm. This can be a bedroom, garage or crate and must have free access as the owner may often not be at home during storms. Your dog can also be trained to sleep in the refuge, thus reducing night time incidents. Animals which dig whilst in their refuge or move off to another place need a better refuge. Add heavy curtains, place extra blankets over the bed to absorb sound, play background music.

Do not “reward” your dog for phobic behaviour by giving it too much attention during these episodes as this will reinforce its behaviour. Keep a relaxed attitude and go about your daily business as normal. This simple point cannot be over-emphasised: dogs are very sensitive to their owners’ moods and stressed owners stress their pets.

Food or a favourite chew/toy which has not been seen in a while may distract your dog’s attention from the storm. Dog appeasement pheromone (DAP), available as a spray or plug-in aerosoliser, has been shown to be helpful in some cases of noise phobia.

Desensitisation aims to manage the condition over the long-term. This involves gradually exposing your dog to increasing intensities of the scary sounds. CDs with scary sounds are available from Follow the instructions carefully. As soon as your pet shows fear, the intensity of exposure needs to be reduced. Positive reinforcement is used when fearful behaviour is not exhibited. As with any behavioural modification, this is a very gradual process. Practical steps such as avoidance of stimuli such as fireworks and shooting is also a given. Do not force dogs to “confront” their fears.

Medication is always only one component of a behavioural modification program and is less effective if used alone. Long-term therapies to help with the modification of behaviour include antidepressant drugs such as the veterinary product Clomipramine®. Drugs used to reduce anxiety once already present include the valium type drugs (alprazolam). All these medications are only available from your veterinarian and should be used only after receiving the appropriate advice.

Dogs’ senses are more acute than humans’ and they will sense an oncoming storm and start showing anxiety before its owner can administer medication. This also underscores the need for behavioural modification and long-term therapy in severe cases.

Early treatment once the problem manifests, prevents it from getting worse. Typically the intensity of the dog’s fear worsens with age. Young animals, less then five months old, can easily be taught to tolerate loud noises by using positive reinforcement, such as play or treats, whilst exposing them to low levels of the noise. Puppy socialisation to a wide variety of situations and experiences is vital to prevent the development of many fears and phobias. Information courtesy of Dr Quixi Sontag, Edupet and Faculty of Veterinary Science


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