Storm Sangria: A calming cocktail for noise-phobic dogs

August 16, 2019

An intervention that includes both appropriate medications and safe-room training can help your anxious veterinary patients experience a measure of peace during thunderstorms and other noisy events.

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We are at the height of thunderstorm season here in the Midwest, and phone calls about storm-fearful dogs fill our days. Storm phobia is the most common subtype of noise phobias in dogs.1 The behavioral response may vary from mild pacing and panting to severe trembling to digging at the door-even breaking teeth and nails to escape.

Triggers may include falling barometric pressure, wind, rain, cloud cover and thunder.2 Many of these triggers are present hours before the storm develops, which explains why dogs can suddenly start acting fearful on a calm, sunny day. When the thunder and lightning do occur, often the dog escalates into panic. The physical impact can include fractured canine teeth, aggravation of congestive heart disease or severe lacerations from attempts to escape the home or confinement during a storm.

Fortunately, there is a myriad of options for intervention-including pheromones, supplements and medications-to help reduce anxiety associated with noise phobia. But medication alone is not enough. The dog also needs to learn to go to a safe room to be calm and protected during a storm.

More cocktails will be served …

In general practice, clients often ask veterinarians and staff members about behavior problems, and veterinary professionals with training in Low Stress Handling, Fear Free practice or other programs may recognize these problems even when clients don't.

A behavior intervention plan can nip problems in the bud or prevent escalation. In my experience, I have found that providing not only a drug but a simple, easy-to-follow behavior modification plan prevented problems from getting worse, and at times was a solution.

Blending a medication and a behavior plan is like a mixing a cocktail. The medication is like the alcohol, and the behavior plan is like the fruit juice or soda. Both parts are required to create an enjoyable, easy-to-consume product that creates a calming experience.

This article is the first in a series of cocktail “recipes”-following this we'll discuss the Litterbox Lemon Drop, the Anxiety Appletini, the Killer Kanine Kamikaze and more. In the meantime, you can head to lowstresshandling.com to find the Behavior Cocktails webinar for an hour of RACE-approved CE.

Introducing the Storm Sangria

The Storm Sangria is a cocktail created to help pets that are fearful of thunderstorms. It can also be used for the Fourth of July or other noisy events. I developed this cocktail based on lectures I attended about storm phobia discussing medications and safe-room plans, and it's also based on my 35 years of clinical experience living in rural central Illinois. The Storm Sangria represents my go-to choice of medications. It is designed to last eight to 12 hours, since clients often must be away at work all day, and storms can erupt without warning and last hours.

This plan is not a behavior consult. It's an intervention to reduce panic and help the dog learn to self-calm in a safe, sheltered place during a noise event. Think of this plan like a glass of sangria-a combination of medication (like the wine and brandy) with an easy-to-follow behavior modification plan (like the juice, fruit and seltzer). You need both parts to create the refreshing drink-or in this case the total plan. This plan will decrease noise fear and prevent further escalation. There may be underlying anxiety problems that require a more complete consultation, but for big noise events, this plan prevents panic and self-injury.

 

But first, let's review

Before we get into the details of the Storm Sangria, here are some key points about storm and noise phobia to keep in mind:

  • A plan that includes appropriate fear-reducing medications and safe-room training is the key to improving behavior. When you have this plan in place, many dogs can reduce fear significantly in the first season and need less medication in subsequent seasons.

  • Some previously non-noise-phobic dogs may suddenly become fearful due to an intense storm event. They will not “get over it.” Every storm or noise event will solidify their fear, and it will increase over time.

  • Recognizing the early signs of anxiety and implementing the plan immediately is imperative. Medications take an hour or two to reach therapeutic levels and are less effective when the animal is already highly anxious.

  • Brain aging, arthritis and other health issues can aggravate noise phobia.3 Be sure to ask your clients with older pets about fear of noises.

Mixing the perfect cocktail

Without further ado, here's how to mix a Storm Sangria:

1. Screen for the level of panic using a storm fear scorecard. In my general practice, I found it helpful to use this storm report card to screen patients for their level of fear. This tool allowed me to quickly provide the medication or supplement needed and implement a simple safety plan to reduce storm fear.

2. Determine the medication plan. This is based on the fear-screening score:

  • Levels 2 to 4: Adaptil collar worn 24/7. The Adaptil pheromone collar provides calming at any time of the day or night, which helps prevent fear escalation, especially when a surprise storm or noise pops up.

  • Levels 3 and 4: Propranolol at 5 mg/15 kg up to 20 mg maximum. Propranolol decreases the physical signs of increasing anxiety, which helps a dog move to the safe room.

  • Level 4: Diazepam at 2 to 5 mg/dog. Diazepam provides mild sedation and anxiety reduction for dogs that would injure themselves in escape attempts.

There are other medications that can work well, so the Storm Sangria is customizable based on your preferences. But the ease of administration, duration of action and reduction of physical signs to aid in getting to the safe room are why I kept most of my patients on this specific cocktail.

3. Teach the dog to happily hang out in a safe room. This can be a bathroom, basement or closet. Clients can teach their dog to go to the bathroom or basement readily by using the “learn to earn” game. They'll reward the dog as it approaches the bathroom or basement, then quickly toss food in the room to make it fun to stay in there. I have a video on my YouTube channel, “Get in the Bathroom,” that demonstrates this process.

4. Place a frozen Kong food puzzle in the safe room. A frozen food puzzle lasts for hours. Clients can have these ready by stocking the freezer with a few ahead of time. When it's time to set up the safe room, they toss in the Kong and they're all set.

5. Play music that's heavy on the bass. I've found that rhythmic rock works best. In my personal and clinical experience, the heavy beat of rock music calms dogs better than classical. I've asked clients to tell me what specific songs helped their dogs be calm, and my own dog Butterscotch liked North African drumming music. From this client input I created the Butterscotch playlist. Use this list to help your clients create their own calming safe-room music list.

A note about older dogs

Geriatric dogs can be worse or better with storms. For dogs over 10 that experience storm fear, mix a Senior Storm Sangria. This cocktail consists of an Adaptil collar worn 24/7 as well as a daily milk protein supplement (Zylkene-Vetoquinol), omega-3 fatty acid supplement and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug of choice for reducing any arthritis pain. Then implement the safe-room plan, the music and a food puzzle. Often, other sedating and anxiety-reducing medications are not needed when addressing age-related health problems, although a carpet runner may be needed to help the older dog walk to the safe room.

Last call

Storm and noise fears can seriously affect both the dog and the owner. Sleepless nights, damage to home and expensive veterinary bills can break the bond with a pet. Prevent problems by advising all dog owners to create a safe room for their pets and send them there during storms or other noisy events. This intervention plan provides a sense of calm and safety-something both noise-phobic dogs and their owners will appreciate.

References

1. Houpt K. Managing noise fears and phobias. American Veterinarian 2018;3(8):28-29.

2. Horwitz D, ed. Blackwell's five-minute veterinary consult clinical companion: Canine and feline behavior. 2nd ed. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2018:375-387.

3. Landsburg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L. Handbook of behavior problems of the dog and cat. New York: Elselvier, 1997:286.

Dr. Sally J. Foote is a certified animal behavior consultant with expertise in Low Stress Handling. She has practiced in general medicine for over 30 years, including ownership of Okaw Veterinary Clinic in Tuscola, Illinois, one of the first Low Stress Handling Certified Clinics in the United States, where she developed a medical record system for recording the positive reinforcers for the veterinary exam. Dr. Foote is also past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and executive director of Cattle Dog Publishing, the legacy of Dr. Sophia Yin.