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Thunderstorms, Fireworks, and Anxiety Oh My!

Posted 12.31.18 by Dr. Raelyn Pirtle, DVM

Is your pet terrified of thunderstorms, fireworks, or loud noises in general? This is a very common issue that we see in pets. Even two of my own dogs become very scared during noise events. This is stressful not only for your pets, but can also affect your quality of life (and sleep!) as well. Sedatives are usually the cornerstone of controlling these unwanted behaviors, but there are some other steps we can take as well.

Dogs with noise phobia may be over vigilant, have a rapid heart rate and breathing, have dilated pupils, may try to hide or escape, or exhibit attention seeking behavior. Some pets may also vocalize, pant excessively, pace, or urinate or defecate inappropriately. Noise phobias often develop gradually, but sometimes may develop suddenly (like after a particularly bad storm). Dogs with separation anxiety seem to be more affected, but the two don’t always go together. These dogs frequently show worse symptoms when left alone during a scary event.

Anxious beagle

Management of noise phobias needs to be multi-modal. While anti-anxiety medications are an important part of treatment, it is important to work with your pet to modify these behaviors. One of the most important things to remember is to never punish your pet for being scared – this can actually make the behavior worse. In the same way, don’t overly comfort your pet (easier said than done!) because comforting can reinforce the unwanted behavior. One of the best things to do is to create a “safe place” for your dog to go during stressful situations whether this is their kennel, a closet, or even just their bed being close to you. Work on reinforcing RELAXED behavior in this area. You can also give your dog their favorite treat or keep them occupied by playing their favorite game during storms or fireworks.

Relaxed beagle

Another way to change these types of behavior is called desensitization. Desensitization requires dedication to daily 3-5 minute sessions with your pet. It involves playing storm or firework sounds at a very low volume and gradually increasing this volume and rewarding your dog for relaxed behavior. Desensitization can be very difficult to achieve. We don’t want the scary stimulus to occur during the entire period of desensitization and the majority of pets are not just scared of the sounds, but also of lightning, high winds, and changes in barometric pressure which are impossible to replicate.

Behavior is sometimes a difficult subject to discuss. It is always important to rule out any medical reasons for these behaviors, so don’t ever hesitate  to mention any new or different behaviors from your pet to your veterinarian. We want you and your pet to be as stress-free as possible!

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