Thunderstorm anxiety behavior modification
Question: Dr Richards, I have a 11 yo chihuahua with a terrible fear of thuderstorms. I have tried behavior modification using tapes of thunderstorms but she seems more afraid of the flash of lightening, so it hasn't worked. Her vet has suggested a sedative to keep her calm during storms. Is there anything else I can do? I worry about her as she gets older and how this fear will affect her heart. I would greatly appreciate your advice. Thank you, Judy
It is hard to recreate the entire effect of a thunderstorm in order to pursue desensitization. You are right that some dogs are more afraid of the lightening and others are probably bothered by the barometer changes, as well as the thunder.
Some dogs control their fear by hiding. This is actually a reasonable response and if it occurs, it is best to provide a safe spot to hide rather than to get dismayed and discourage the behavior or to interfere by trying to be with the dog and comfort it. It isn't a good idea to rely on something like a crate as a hiding spot for a dog that doesn't have a natural inclination to do this though (don't confine a frightened dog that doesn't want to be confined).
We have used amitriptyline during the thunderstorm season, supplementing with diazepam (Valium Rx) when actual storms occurred, with some success. This seems to help more than diazepam alone and it also seems to help lower the necessary dosage of diazepam needed to control the anxiety. It doesn't come close to working for all dogs, though. It would probably work better to use clomipramine (Clomicalm Rx), fluoxetine (Prozac Rx) or paroxetine (Paxil Rx) but these are expensive and most of my clients who have considered them have balked at the price of using them the whole thunderstorm season. They would be more reasonable for a little dog, though.
I have seen a report of good success in controlling thunderstorm anxiety using melatonin (Jan 1999 Journal of the AVAM, -- from memory, may not be right). The dosage was 3mg as soon as the storm was noticed, I think. It would probably be best to cut that dose down some for your size dog, though. We have tried this in two dogs and it hasn't worked, yet, though. It is still worth a try, even if it only helps a few dogs, I would think.
As our older patients lose hearing, many of them also lose their fear of thunderstorms. That doesn't happen to all older dogs but enough of them lose some hearing and get calmer that I think it is more likely to happen than an increase in problems as dogs age.
I wish I had better suggestions, especially since we have a lot of thunderstorms here by the Chesapeake Bay!
Mike Richards, DVM 11/19/2000
Question: I am a subscriber to your digest. I am looking for information on herbal Tx for dogs with thunderstorm anxiety. Conventional Tx's have not worked well. (Last was the use of ClomiCalm). Can anyone give a clue as to where to look? No one in my area knows of herbal Tx's. If you need more info. will be glad to send.
The most common recommendations I see for thunderstorm anxiety are Rescue Remedy (tm), which I think is also called Calming Essence (tm) and Bach flower remedies. I do not know how successful these treatments are but they are safe.
Melatonin, 0.1mg/kg once or twice daily, used during the thunderstorm season in conjunction with amitriptyline 3mg/kg every 12 hours, may be helpful, as well, based on a case report in the AVMA Journal by Dr. Linda Aronson from Jan 1999.
Hope this helps some.
Mike Richards, DVM 7/24/2000
Q: My friend's Giant Schnauzer, Goliath, was petrified of thunder. Yesterday, he tried to go through a window during a storm. He had collapsed and was cut up but still breathing when we found him. His eye was all swollen; he may have bumped his head. The vet came to the house and tranquilized him so she could bring him back to her office. I don't know the dosage but the medication was ACE. She patched him up and he came home two hours later. She said he would be out for at least another 12 hours. He had no control of his bowels but seemed to be breathing OK. Three hours later, he stopped breathing. We tried CPR and mouth to mouth but couldn't resuscitate him. We are all heart-broken and trying to find some explanation for his death. I don't know how easy it is to over tranquilize a dog. It would make us feel better if we have some outside perspective on this. Thank you.
A: Christine- Acepromazine is considered to a very safe sedative from the aspect of dosing. It has a wide margin of safety in most dogs. Recently there have been some reports of dogs with unusual sensitivity to this medication that leads to death even with smaller than normal dosages. I have used this medication for my entire career (18 years) without seeing this problem so I believe it to be rare.
I can not say if a sensitivity to "Ace" caused the problems with Goliath. Just like people, dogs appear to die sometimes from the effects of fright, especially when a pre-existing condition such as cardiomyopathy or Addison's disease is present. Since these can be very difficult to detect they have to be considered when sudden death occurs, too.
I am sorry I can not be more help.
Mike Richards, DVM
Q: I know this is a common problem, but I can't find reference to it on your website. We have a 2-year-old border collie/who-knows-what we adopted about six months ago. He responded well to our taking him to obedience training, except he has separation anxiety and is uncontrollable during thunderstorms. I don't know if these anxieties are related. I've had dogs before who were afraid of thunder, but generally hid or calmed down if I was around. Boris is inconsolable during storms. He has chewed apart two gates in a matter of minutes, runs himself in circles, pants and absolutely will not be calmed not will he follow simples sit/stay commands. Sometimes he urinates, but this is not a significant part of the problem. Our vet prescribed acepromazine, 1/2 a 25g. tablet. This helps if we give it to him two hours before the storm starts. But if we are caught by surprise, we are left with six or eight hours of a panicked dog. I am also slightly concerned about long-term use of any medication. Any suggestions? Thanks. Margaret
A: Margaret- Thunderstorm anxiety is very common. Some dogs are incredibly difficult to control during a storm. These dogs do not respond all that well to medication but we have had the best luck in treating this disorder medically using amitriptyline (Elavil Rx) on a continuous basis during the storm season and supplementing it with diazepam (Valium Rx) when a storm actually occurs. There is nothing wrong with using acetylpromazine (Acepromazine Rx, PromAce Rx) if it works. I am not aware of long term complications associated with the use of Acepromazine on an intermittent basis and consider it to be a relatively safe medication.
It may be possible to desensitize Boris to the storms. This is a little difficult to do because it is hard to reproduce all the sensations associated with a storm (lightening, thunder, air-pressure changes, wind, etc.). Some dogs will respond to recordings of storms played softly, then gradually louder over time until they can tolerate real storms. It helps a lot to have the help of a behaviorist when attempting to treat this condition. Your vet may know of one in your area.
Q: My 11yr old black lab, Greta, HATES storms...last night we had a bad one and she was VERY anxious. At 5am, she barked to be let out---very unusual, but does happen on occasion if she gets sick to her stomach, or something like that....she went straight out to urine and went on for a 'visit' in the courtyard...this happened again at 7am and 7:30 and again at 8:15. She continued to seem restless, so I checked her temperature and her gums....I was concerned about an infection, but she had all her shots only a month ago......She is alert and otherwise acting normal.....just restless.....is this a display of anxiety from last night's storm? She is on Canine CD and I have not seen any blood in her urine. Since she goes outside, I cannot tell about the odor.......I could follow her with a plate..... . The last time we went thru this the vet said she could see nothing abnormal with her, so I don't know what to attribute this behavior to. Please advise.
Dogs can be very upset by storms and I would not rule that out in a situation like you describe. But I'd still advise consulting with your vet to discuss the possibility of cystitis (bladder infection) and other causes of increased urination. Hopefully you have already done this.
Thunderstorm anxiety is tough to treat. Some dogs respond to a combination of amitriptylline on a regular basis during the storm season, supplemented with diazepam (Valium Rx) when necessary -- but not enough to make this a really reliable treatment. Desensitizing the dog to the storms (acclimating them to the sounds, etc.) can work but usually you need to have the help of an animal behaviorist to get this done.
Mike Richards, DVM
Last edited 01/30/05
Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...