Marsha Reich, DVM DACVB
We have already had some bad thunderstorms this spring. The response to a thunderstorm by your pet varies from totally ignoring it, to trying to escape from it. Some dogs just become ?clingy? and sit or lie by their owners. Some dogs pace, pant, or whine. Some dogs dig, often in the bathtub. Many dogs tremble. Some dogs seek confined spaces, like under beds or in closets. When an owner is not home, some dog?s responses worsen to the point of trying to escape the house, destroying doors, walls, and windows in the process. A few dogs seem to calm down when they are outside; most others run or dig out of yards. Rarely, a dog becomes aggressive. Most of my clients have been told by others not to try and comfort the dog by saying things like ?its okay? to avoid the dog thinking it is okay to be terrified by the storm. The reality is that all of those clients have said it does not make a difference what they say or do while the storm is occurring. The storm causes the fear; the words neither augment nor lessen the fear. The dogs might even be so terrified that they do not focus on what the owner is saying. I find that the client speaking to the dog may give the dog something else to focus on besides the sounds of the rain and thunder, especially since other sources of sound like televisions and stereos are often turned off. Some dogs do worse with thunderstorms over time and some dogs improve. Rarely a dog responds to a snow thunderstorm. Also, occasionally a dog will generalize and react to more storm related situations like rain or time of day.
To treat a thunderstorm phobic dog you need to know when it starts to react. If the client says it hears the thunder an hour before the storm actually arrives, then it may actually be reacting to the changes in barometric pressure and the ozone or ?smell? of a storm. Humidity and temperature seem to play a role since rarely do dogs react to winter or late fall thunderstorms. I have been asked about the dogs feeling static, causing their response. I am not an electrician but I see more static in dry weather not humid. If a dog just responds to the sound of thunder, then the dog might be able to be desensitized to a storm. This is best approached in the winter because to desensitize a dog, it needs to only be exposed to low levels of the stimulus that does not produce the fear response. I suggest a client use a good-quality audiotape recorder to try to tape the sound of a storm. The commercially made CDs or tapes can also help, but thunderstorms in different areas of the country and world sound different, so they may not be as effective as we want because they are not produced locally. They might even be electronically created, mimicking the storm sounds to our ears but not sufficiently for a dog?s ears (like plastic bugs do not often scare people afraid of bugs- depending on the level of fear). If the dog does not react to the tape played at normal volume, then it will not work, you cannot desensitize a dog to something it isn?t reacting to. If it does react, then wait a few days and have the client start to work on playing the tape incredibly quietly while the dog is relaxed and doing something like chewing a toy and gradually over several weeks increasing the volume.
The medication I use most often for thunderstorms is alprazolam (Xanax). The dose I use is 0.03-0.05 mg/kg, however the published dose range is 0.01-0.1 mg/kg. For the dogs that react way ahead of the storm, I recommend the dog be given alprazolam 1-2 hours before a storm is expected. Even our meteorologists have some difficulty predicting storm times with absolute accuracy, so I have clients do the best they can. If the dog starts to react, they should give the alprazolam. If the storm is expected between a certain time set the client can give the alprazolam an hour before that time. If the client is going to be at work then they can give the alprazolam before they leave. I find the duration of action to be 4-6-8-12 hours depending on how reactive or terrified a dog is. Sometimes we get lines of storms that move through the area so I suggest repeating at half the dose in 4-6 hours if needed.
The main side effect is ataxia, so I warn clients about the dog falling on stairs. An uncommon side effect is excitement or what I describe to clients as goofy puppy-like behavior. If the dog isn?t anxious and acts like a puppy it isn?t a bad thing. If a dog is still anxious and also runs through the house grabbing every item in its path, then the alprazolam should be discontinued. It has been written that diazepam (a related medication) can ?disinhibit? a dog?s behavior, meaning that if a dog inhibits its bite, theoretically it may not inhibit while on diazepam. This is extrapolated from how some people act on diazepam, some are not inhibited from doing some things they otherwise wouldn?t (like dance on a table). I have not had any clients report this as a problem which would make sense since without the anxiety the aggression would not occur. Agitation has also been reported as a rare side effect.
When a dog has been reported to act aggressive it is often the dogs that are so afraid they are hiding and the owner is trying to pull the dog out of where it is. If the dog is hiding it is likely in a confined space, so it is also cornered. The owner pulling it out adds to its fear, and the dog might perceive the owner as threatening and the dog reacts to defend itself from the threat.
Another medication used for thunderstorms is diazepam. This tends to be a bit more sedating than alprazolam. I do not use acepromazine for thunderstorms because it is not an anxiolytic, a dog is less responsive to the storm but is just as anxious about it.
I have not used melatonin for thunderstorms, however a dose that I found is dogs less than 5kg .5-1 mg, 5-15 kg 1.5 mg, 15-50 kg 3 mg; it can be given up to three times a day. Plain tablets only not capsules or other forms.