Storm phobias: No other problem is as widespread, as devastating for the animal, and asfrustrating for the veterinarian in practice as is the issue of managing animals experience seasonal terror.The issue of noise and storm phobias and their tendency to be associated with other anxietydisorders was an issue much discussed by me and others at the recent AVMA meetings and the associatedbehavior meetings. Ironically, as these meetings were wrapping up, a dog I loved very much was dying -because of her terror of storms.About nine years ago, I obtained a retired show champion Tibetan Spaniel, Susie, for my mother,with the understanding that should my mother predecease the dog, the dog would come to me. Duringthe time that my mother had Susie, the dog became more fearful of storms of all kinds, as are many dogsin the southeast United States.Whenever my mother would tell me how much Susie had suffered during the most recent storm, Iwould launch into my speech about how much medication can help, and how important it is to treat thesedogs early and often.
My mother's response was invariably that drugs were overused. Susie justneeded love. My mother would hold her to get through the storm, and Susie was fine, but tired, the nextday. It's entirely possible that my mother could or would have taken advice about medication fromanyone but me, but this logic is also something that veterinarians in practice tell me they often hear fromclients. Surely, I failed to convince the client to avail herself of expertise.When my mother died, the people who had been fostering Susie for the months when my motherwas unable to care for her asked if they could keep her. I had no choice but to acquiesce: they loved herand were in tears at the thought of me taking her away. Again, I mentioned treatment for storms, buttheir response was that their other little dog was also distressed during storms and they would just sitwith her.The day after the AVMA meetings wrapped up, I answered the phone to hear the voices of Susie'sadopted parents. They wanted me to know that there had been a terrible series of storms the nightbefore.Susie had trouble breathing during the first one. During the second storm — in the middle of thenight and in these people's arms - Susie went into cardiac and respiratory arrest and died.Susie's adopted parents asked me if she had always been so terrified of storms. My response wasno; her terror worsened with time and exposure. How could I revisit the drug argument with someonewho held a dead dog?So, for all the pets who suffer, here's the take home message:Storm and noise phobias are emergencies.They will only worsen with exposure, and the rate at which they worsen depends on theneurochemistry of the dog and the severity and unpredictability of the storms.
Data suggest that ~70 percent of all dogs who react profoundly to miscellaneous noisesalso have storm phobias, and 90 percent of dogs with storm phobias react badly to other noises.Co-morbidity is the rule: ~70 percent of dogs seen in a clinical setting with noise or storm phobiasalso have often undiagnosed separation anxiety.
Screen for all of these at every visit
.Dogs experiencing fearful noises (e.g. shipping on a plane) as youngsters may be at increased riskfor later development of more profound noise or storm phobias.Dogs who react to storms may not be reacting to the noise: trigger stimuli could include othersounds (wind, rain), darkness, changes in light intensity, barometric pressure changes, ozone changesand changes in human behavior. Any of these can lead to panic and must be treated. The medicationsthat treat phobias also treat panic.
Strategies to treat
Treatment not only saves lives, but it means the difference between a life of quality or a life of painand suffering. Treatment can involve the dreaded behavior modification, but this is one case where drugsare essential and
optional. The rationale for behavioral medication follows.Alprazolam (Xanax) is my preferred drug of choice for storm and noise phobias, and for all dogswho panic, whether the panic is a solitary diagnosis or a co-morbid one with separation anxiety or otheranxiety-related condition. This benzodiazepine (BZ) is considered the classic "panicolytic" drug in humanmedicine, and has the advantage of a broad dosage range for anxiolytic effects, and a more narrow rangefor sedation. With diazepam, the pattern is reversed; however, dogs, like people, are incredibly individualin their response to benzodiazepines. Some dogs do better with one of these while other dogs show thereverse patterns. The only drawback to these medications is that they can be addictive and abused byhumans, so there is the occasional household in which such medications should not be placed.