Thunder and Sirens and Fireworks, Oh My!
by Shannon Lynnes Heggem
For humans, summer is such a beautiful season, filled with fun and outdoor activities. But for our canine friends, it can really be a frightening time of year.
Many dogs suffer from anxiety attacks during the summer months due to many seasonal factors. Hot, sunny weather unfortunately brings thunderstorms. And, of course, the fireworks displays around the Fourth of July pose special problems as well. Even the sound of a siren through an open window can trigger a panic attack for some sensitive pets.
As a boarding kennel owner for many years, I dealt with this situation on a regular basis. Many people obviously would leave on vacation during the summer months, and left their precious pets in my care. I have dealt with many different dogs over the years with varying degrees of noise anxiety. It has been my experience that advance planning for these pets with special needs is vital. The first step to dealing with anxiety is recognizing the problem.
Pet owners are usually aware of their pets' noise sensitivity. The symptoms are obvious; with the onset of loud noises, the dogs become very nervous and unsettled. Generalized anxiety sets in, then heavy breathing or panting, pacing back and forth, and even vomiting can occur. If left unaddressed, these symptoms can escalate into more severe, dangerous antics. These extreme anxiety attacks usually bring either destructive behavior, or escape attempts.
Many dogs destroy their surroundings as a result of their fear of loud noises. The physical exertion becomes an outlet for anxiety. From favorite toys to couches and carpets, nothing is off limits for a dog that is in panic mode. Dogs have even been known to mutilate their own bodies while suffering from noise anxiety, by excessively licking or biting themselves. Their fears take over, and their own pain then becomes secondary.
Oftentimes destruction is the precursor for escape. When ripping up the family's favorite chair doesn't offer relief from the fear and stress, the dog then goes into flight mode. Fearful dogs left indoors have been known to chew through entire wood doors, tear through drywall, even jump through plate glass windows to escape their fears. For outdoor pets, the need to get away is ever present as well. Fences that have effectively contained the dog now become an insignificant obstacle when driven by fear of loud noises. Many dogs simply chew through the chains that anchor them in their yards, just to get away.
A severely frightened dog satisfies its fear through the act of escaping, and, in his own canine mind, he thinks that running away from the loud noise will save his life. Thousands of dogs end up in animal shelters during the summer months, especially around Independence Day. Shelters nationwide are accustomed to dealing with what is referred to as "Fourth of July Dogs." Some are picked up by animal control officers, and others are turned in by good samaritans. The loud sounds from the fireworks displays prove to be too much to handle for these anxious pets. Many of them who end up in the shelters are not wearing i.d. tags, making it impossible for them to be reunited with their owners. If and when new homes are not found, ultimately many of these pets are then euthanized. It is a sad situation that can be avoided, if precautions are taken by pet owners who recognize their pets' fears.
The key to dealing with noise anxiety in dogs is making the pet feel safe and secure. Of course, the most obvious solution is to remove the noise or remove the dog from the situation. But this is not always possible. Therefore, planning ahead is vital.
Confining a pet when it is fearful will only be effective if the pet's place of confinement is what he considers to be a "safe place" during normal life. Many pet owners have used pet carriers for housebreaking, or as a pet's bedtime place. If your pet feels that his carrier is a safe place, then it is acceptable to place him in the crate during a storm, etc. Placing the crate in an interior room or basement can be helpful to muffle the noise. Playing a radio and/or running a fan near the crate will make it difficult for the pet to hear the outside noise, and can have an overall calming effect.
It is very important, however, to note that if your pet does not like going into a crate, placing him in one during a time of anxiety can be very detrimental! If he does not feel the crate is safe when it isn't storming, it will become a place of great fear after being locked in it when the thunder is crashing around him. This negative reinforcement can result in a dog with more generalized anxiety if not properly handled.
Some dogs like to find their own place to hide when they encounter fearful noises. Small dogs often prefer to hide under a bed or behind a sofa. If this makes the dog feel better, then it is important to provide access to his favorite hiding place when he is afraid.
Distraction can be a great tool for dealing with fear and stress, but this method is usually only effective with dogs who have a low level of anxiety. A lively game of indoor fetch can sometimes distract him from the bottle rockets going off next door. Or even cuddle time on the couch with favorite treats can be enough to keep your pet distracted. Determining the level of anxiety will help to define the treatment method needed to deal with the noise anxiety.
Those dogs with more severe cases can often be effectively treated with medication. It is vital to seek veterinary consultation before administering medications at home, as frequency and dosing is much different for our canine friends than for humans.
It is important to note that using medications as a prevention rather than a treatment can be more effective. We had one frequent guest at the kennel that was so terrified of thunder that his teeth would start to chatter long before the first clap of thunder! At his vet's advice, we started giving Winston a dose of medication when the forecast called for storms. By the time the actual storm would set in, he would be peacefully napping. Overall, it is easier for these medications to calm the pet if adrenaline is not yet a factor. Here are some general guidelines for dealing with your pet's noise anxiety:
* Make sure your pet is wearing a current i.d. tag on it's collar.
* Have a safe hiding place available for your buddy to escape to, under a favorite chair, or into a pet taxi.
* Provide a fun distraction or favorite ritual that you know your pet enjoys.
* Contact your veterinarian and discuss medication options. Make a chart of dosages and keep the medication on hand at home. (Tip: Rolling a pill in a lump of peanut butter makes the medicating process easy for you, and yummy for Fido!)
* Do not take your pet to a fireworks display. Arrange for someone to stay with him, or put him in his safe spot with a radio or fan.
* Do not punish your pet for being afraid. This will only make him more fearful!
* Do not try to desensitize the pet by exposing him to more loud noises. This will only exacerbate the problem.
Overall, dogs suffering from noise anxiety can be helped through proper planning and prevention, and of course, loving reassurance. If left untreated, this anxiety reaction, like any high stress situation, can be potentially harmful or can even lead to fatal consequences. Consider which treatment options would be best for your anxious pet. Remember, with planning and patience, a caring pet owner can indeed make the noisy situation less stressful!
About the Author: Shannon Lynnes Heggem is a motivational speaker, who has a strong background in the pet industry. She amazingly survived a vicious Rottweiler attack in 1998, and since then has overcome incredible obstacles to continue her life's journey. She has dedicated her life to motivating others to succeed beyond their own experiences. http://shannonheggem.com/