Storm and Noise Phobias


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Storm and noise phobias originate from natural behaviours: Being outside in a severe storm is dangerous, whereas seeking shelter is adaptive. The fear that animals normally experience when exposed to severe weather facilitates their engaging in the behaviour of seeking shelter. Likewise, loud noises may indicate danger (e.g. predators, falling trees or rocks). Therefore, being alert to and avoiding sources of loud sounds are also adaptive behaviors.


Behavioural Signs

When afraid, many storm- or noise-phobic pets seek out an interior closet or bathtub, whereas others exhibit more intense reactions, including:Scared-Dog.jpg
• panting
• pacing
• whining or howling
• trembling
• drooling
• urination or defecation
• digging and chewing at (or even running through) barriers.

Often, affected dogs try to get as close as possible to their owners and may paw at them or climb onto their laps. During storms, most storm-phobic cats do not seek their owners but instead hide under a piece of furniture or in a closet (some cats do seek their owners during storms though). Pets that seek shelter may are not necessarily less afraid than pets that leap through glass windows; the former simply have less violent and obvious ways of showing their fear. Behavioural fear responses are often more intense when owners are absent.

Treatment

The treatment of storm and noise phobias involves a combination of management, behaviour modification, and medication. Numerous steps can be taken to help manage the problem. "White noise" such as music or television can sometimes be helpful. If the pet seems to be calmer in a certain place (e.g., an interior cupboard, bathroom or under a piece of furniture) that somewhat isolates it from the stimulus, this behaviour may be allowed.

adaptil.bmpPlugging an Adaptil™ (dog appeasing pheromone) Diffuser into a socket near the area where your dog seeks shelter, or using an Adaptil™ Collar or Spray can be helpful. Pets that typically spend much of their time outside but become frightened by storms or noise (e.g., fireworks or Formula one engines) should be allowed to find a secure area indoors.

Pets that seek their owners should be allowed to stay near them, but do not attempt to comfort your pet in response to care-soliciting behavior.  Learning processes still occur during episodes of storm or noise phobia, so patting and cuddling your pet in response to care-soliciting behaviour results in the pet learning to engage in these behaviors anytime the noise occurs, even if their fear is actually waning.

Medication

In pets with a severe fear of storms or noises, medication is often essential for improvement.  Many pets respond well to 'anxiolytic' medication, some may also benefit from sedatives if their phobia response so violent that they risk self-injury.

If you live in an area where severe storms are infrequent, administration of medication 30 to 60 minutes before stormy weather may be adequate.  There are many meteorological apps now available that can assist in planning when to medicate your pet. Pets that live in areas where storms are frequent and where the pet is often exposed to stimuli associated with storms may require maintenance medication  for at least one month before its efficacy can be determined. Although some patients exhibit rapid improvement in only a few days, many that ultimately respond well do not begin improving until they have received medication for 1 month or longer.

Behaviour Modification

Behaviour modification consists primarily of desensitisation and counterconditioning. To use these techniques, we must be able to replicate - in a controlled way - a stimulus to which your pet shows fear. For example: if a pet exhibits a fear response to an audio recording of rain when it is played at full volume, the recording should then be played at home at a very low volume that does not induce a fear response.  Although many potentially useful audio recordings are commercially available, some pets respond only to sounds unique to their area, making it necessary for the owner to make a recording of local sounds that cause a problem (e.g. fireworks, jet engines etc).

At the same time as desensitisation, we must try and induce emotional and behavioural states that are incompatible with fear (this is called counterconditioning). The best method of counterconditioning depends on the patient. Although many pets do well with being fed highly palatable treats (e.g. small dried fish for cats; bits of dried liver or cheese for dogs), others do better with play, patting, or massage.

Not all storm-phobic pets respond solely to the sounds of rain and thunder. Some appear to respond more to other stimuli that the owner may not be able to mimic, sudden changes in barometric pressure for example. It is not possible to desensitise a pet to changes in barometric pressure in a controlled fashion. However, the use of medication during real but uncontrolled shifts in barometric pressure appears to be helpful in some cases.  It has been shown that the repeated use of anxiolytic medications alone, may result in a steady improvement.

Goals and Expectations

When we attempt to treat storm or noise phobia, it is important to have realistic goals and expectations. As discussed, fear of very loud noises and severe storms is normal, especially when animals have little shelter. A reasonable goal is for gradual partial improvement in signs of anxiety. As the pet improves, the fear response exhibited during even moderately severe events should be increasingly less intense. Eventually, a pet that historically whined loudly, shook violently, paced, scratched at doors, and tried to climb onto its owner's lap may only occasionally whine quietly and seek the company of its owner. This is a satisfactory outcome, even though the pet is clearly still affected.

Conclusion

Although fear of storm-related stimuli and noises can be very distressing for pets and owners, pets with storm and noise phobias are often responsive to appropriate treatment (in one study over 90% of patients treated showed improvement).  Contact us for further advice, or book an appointment, and we'll help tailor an individual management plan for your pet.