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Medicating for Storm and Fireworks Phobia: What Every Dog Person Should Know

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Dog suffering from noise phobia

It’s that time of year again! With the Fourth of July just around the corner and hurricane season barely underway, it’s time to talk about storm and noise phobia. After all, by the time you notice the stress in your dog’s eyes, it’s a bit late to talk to your veterinarian about what you should be doing to mitigate her current anxiety. And know this: With every scary noise event she lives through, any untreated storm-phobic pet will have her fears reinforced.

Not that I’m advocating the use of medications in every case of noise or storm phobia (despite the title of this post). Those who are less severely affected can often be effectively treated with noise-phobia behavioral modification techniques alone (employing distraction and other calming behaviors are the mainstay of this kind of treatment). 

Drug-free approaches are also recommended as an adjunct to any storm or noise phobic dog’s regimen. But drugs? We’re starting to think that for an increasing percentage of dogs, they’re the only way.

Now, some of you may bristle at this notion. But the veterinary profession has made great strides in the study of this particular issue. What’s discussed below is based on peer-reviewed science and reflects a general consensus in the veterinary behavior community.  

Whether to medicate an animal or not is a serious issue fraught with many considerations, most of which revolve around drug safety and the possibility of adverse reactions.

With that in mind, here’s my checklist for the kind of behavioral criteria that should find pet owners asking their veterinarians – ideally well in advance – to detail the pros and cons of sedatives or other medications for their pet’s particular medical and behavioral considerations:

  1. Does your pet stress during even minor storms?
  2. Does that stress ever manifest as more than hiding behavior?
  3. Is her behavior worsening with each progressive storm season?
  4. Does she ever hurt herself or others while exhibiting symptoms of storm-related anxiety?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above – particularly to number 4! – meds might be in order.

Sure, there’s little so unsavory as the need for drugs to relieve anyone of their fears, but recognize that some anxieties will not just go away without the assistance of drugs.

Having said that, the fact that drugs are being discussed in a post like this should be a wake-up call. In the past, drugs were employed only as a last resort when all other behavioral interventions and natural remedies had proven insufficient (and only for the most severe sufferers). But over the past decade, our thinking has shifted. We now recognize that storm phobia in particular is a progressive disease. With each subsequent storm (and storm season), dogs become increasingly fearful. That’s why we now consider drug therapy even for dogs who don’t appear to suffer “that badly.”

The good news is that the goals of drug therapy have changed too. Sedating a pet into oblivion is no longer the preferred approach. Getting a dog to a non-fearful, less reactive state is the ultimate goal. Moreover, drug therapy is never considered in the absence of the other therapies I described above.

No, “knocking out” a pet isn’t what you’ll discuss with your veterinarian during storm season. A variety of long-term strategies to help alleviate you dog’s storm anxieties are absolutely in order here.

To that end, here are some common drugs your veterinarian may discuss as part of a comprehensive approach to managing your dog’s noise and storm phobias (some of these may also be recommended for travel and other fear-provoking events):

Benadryl®: This mildly-quieting antihistamine is commonly recommended to help promote sleepiness during travel and other stressful events. Though very mild, and typically insufficient for most sufferers, it might be part of an early anxiety relief regimen for some.

Sileo® (medetomidine): Approved for storm phobia in dogs, this relatively-gentle drug has also been a boon to some travelers. It seems to make them care less about the noises and other sensations while keeping them from being too dopey or too sleepy.

Alprazolam (Xanax®), diazepam (Valium®) and other benzodiazepine drugs: These can be very effective but the dose can vary widely. As with many of these drugs, trial and error is often required to get the dosing right. (And you certainly don’t want to worry about safe dosing during a storm.)

Clomipramine (Clomicalm®): This tricyclic antidepressant is often used for panic disorders in humans. It’s been approved for use in dogs for separation anxiety, but it works well for some storm phobia sufferers too. This medication must be used regularly (e.g., for the entire storm season) for it to be effective.

Acepromazine (for both cats and dogs): This traditional tranquilizer works to sedate most dogs, which is why it’s still around. It’s side effects may include aggression and some pretty pronounced dopiness (which can last for more than a day). Because less problematic methods are now available, this drug is not as frequently prescribed as it once was.

Trazodone: Used commonly as a mild tranquilizer for humans, this safe and effective sleep-inducing agent works great for dogs too. Most don’t get too dopey on it.

Prozac® (fluoxetine): This popular and inexpensive drug is an antidepressant in the family of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. It’s commonly prescribed for humans who suffer from panic disorders. The downside is that, like clomipramine, it has to be administered for longer periods of time and can take weeks to reach the desired level of efficacy. But it usually helps and is perhaps the most commonly prescribed drug by veterinary behavior specialists.

Interestingly, many of these drugs will not achieve the desired effect when administered on their own – they have to be combined. For example, the most popular combination for storm phobia includes a routine regimen of Prozac® throughout storm season, with Xanax® administered right before storms for an augmented effect when needed. For singular events, like the Fourth of July, it’s far more common to administer only one drug.

Of course, all dogs who receive prescriptions must have physical examinations and blood tests in advance, along with a comprehensive behavior modification plan. For this reason (and many others!), a strong relationship with a trusted veterinarian is indispensable.

In the case of dogs whose phobia seems unsurmountable (this is not uncommon), consultation with a board certified veterinary behavior specialist is strongly recommended.

The take home message: Noise phobias, particularly storm phobias, constitute a serious progressive disorder for which treatment should be initiated as soon as it’s noticed. Dogs who hide, pace, shiver or – god forbid – become destructive should see a veterinarian immediately for a consultation. In no way should even the slightest sign of discomfort be discounted as normal.

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