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Considering how much noise an average dog can make when he's excited, it is a little ironic how many canines are deeply disturbed by loud noises, like thunder, fireworks and gunshots. Reactions to such noises are not uncommon: loud noises from overhead are difficult to orient to. While many dogs get accustomed to them (habituation), others may become more sensitive, resulting in additional fear with each exposure. When fear escalates to shaking, hiding, howling, running away, house soiling, or downright destruction of the house, the problem can be daunting for owners. In such cases the term "phobia" better describes the pet's reaction. Even normally happy, well adjusted dogs can become full of panic at the sound of thunder or fireworks and can and end up hurting themselves, others or their residence.
What can be done to help our canine friends "weather the storm" with less panic? If your dog seems agitated or restless, you may be able to assist him in securing a safe haven and help him relax during storms. Dogs often try to hide to avoid a thunderstorm; this is a normal response. This safe location should be readily available, especially when no one is home. You can try to limit exposure to the overwhelming and fear-evoking noises by closing doors and windows, and using white noise, TV or music to block out the sounds. You can also redirect the dog to alternative and anxiety-incompatible behaviors such as obedience exercises, or fun activities (agility or food puzzle toys). Each dog and family may need to implement different strategies based on their dog’s unique response. If your dog shows little or no response to noises, you need not do anything.
For very anxious animals, however, it is essential to reduce anxiety during a storm or firework display to prevent escalation of the anxiety and allow management and treatment options to be successful. Chose interventions based upon the severity of the anxiety and the severity of the noise. A number of non pharmacological alternatives are available that may help calm the moderately fearful dog. Pheromone intervention (e.g. D.A.P.® Dog Appeasing Pheromone, Adaptil ® collars, room diffusers and premise sprays) can be used alone or in combination with another intervention. Nutraceutical or natural products such as Composure® treats or Rescue Remedy may also be beneficial. A promising new product that is becoming widely available is the Thunder Shirt®, a snug fitting vest that swaddles the dog, giving him the feeling of being securely held, and possibly triggering pressure points that act to calm him.
A dog with severe anxiety may benefit from long-term management with anxiolytic medications (such as fluoxetine or clomipramine) that must be given daily; in addition (or instead), rapidly-acting anxiolytics (similar to Xanax or valium) may be given immediately prior to or even during a storm or firework display. It's important to consult with your veterinarian before giving any prescription medications to your pets, however.
And try not to forget how exquisitely atuned your canine friend is to your own responses. Don’t panic or show your own anxiety during storms to avoid making your dog’s anxiety worse. You should try to reassure him to encourage relaxation or direct him with obedience or trick cues. If your dog’s anxiety is minimal and he startles but recovers quickly, it may be appropriate for you to ignore him or praise him calmly, reinforcing his natural ability to adapt to noises (habituation). Ignoring severe anxiety or extreme displays when the dog is not likely to adapt naturally is not recommended. If his anxiety persists, seems extreme or your pet is at risk for self injury, be sure to consult a professional.
It should be noted that loud noises per se don't cause a seizure disorder, but they can escalate a problem if the pet is prone to seizures. While thunder and lightning or the sound of fireworks can trigger seizures in a dog, normally the dog has a pre existing or underlying condition, such as epilepsy, that is exacerbated by the fear response. Similarily, dogs with separation anxiety may have a harder time with loud noises. Some dogs are more anxious during thunderstorms when they are alone, and thunderstorm and noise fears are common in dogs with separation anxiety. Planning ahead to make sure your fearful pet is in a safe place and you have the necessary tools to help when bad weather is predicted or fireworks are expected is best.