What Is It About Thunderstorms That Causes So Much Fear And Anxiety In Some Dogs?

Countless dog owners deal with the often heartbreaking circumstance of their beloved dog experiencing sheer panic during thunderstorms that tend to occur in late summer.  Here in my home state of Florida, dogs prone to thunderstorm anxiety suffer on a near daily basis from July through October.  I have an 11 year old yellow Labrador who began experiencing thunderstorm anxiety as he neared 2 years of age so I deal with this issue not just as a veterinarian but also as a dog parent who loves his dog dearly.

So why do some dogs react so fearfully to thunderstorms?  The noise of the thunder probably plays a significant role, but some dogs like mine, may suffer thunderstorm anxiety, but may be okay with other loud noises like fireworks. My late Border Collie mix Lulu was the complete opposite, as she had zero fear of thunderstorms while fireworks set off panic.

Like my Lab, some dogs are akin to being a living barometer where he may be pacing and anxious while it is sunny, quiet, with calm winds, and clear skies outside, but there is a storm on its way still 45 minute out.  Thus, the effects of the thunderstorm on dogs prone to thunderstorm anxiety are clearly multi-factorial and include:

  • Noise
  • Static electricity
  • Barometric pressure drop

Thunderstorm anxiety often worsens with time, especially if measures are not taken to reduce its severity.  From experience, there is rarely one single remedy an effective approach is typically multimodal.  Below are some common remedies, some natural, some not, listed with pros and cons:

  • Apply a snug garment – this is when a snug fitting shirt like the Thundershirt is placed on the dog that has an effect like swaddling a new born baby.  The shirt Storm Defender takes this concept a step further by integrating a metallic lining to the shirt that the product claims disperses static electricity.  Most of the benefits of these products are anecdotal by I see them work often enough to recommend giving them a shot.
    • Pros – Drug free approach that legitimately provides anxiety relief to some dogs.
    • Cons – They often do not work.
  • Pheromone therapy – A veterinary pharmaceutical was able to synthesize and bottle a calming pheromone that the lactating female dog emits to calm her puppies and encourage them to nurse.  The product, Adaptil, comes in plug in diffusers and sprays.  The diffusers provide 24/7 therapy in a 700 square foot space, while the sprays last for 6-8 hours.  Some dog owners spray down snug garments with Adaptil prior to fitting the dog in the shirt.
    • Pros – Drug free approach that legitimately provides anxiety relief to some dogs.
    • Cons – Costly for some dog owners, sometimes does not work.
  • Sedatives like Valium and Xanax
    • Pros – Often work well to relieve anxiety, not very costly.
    • Cons – Effectiveness usually lessens over time and doses need to be increased or drug changed frequently, if storms blow in quickly there is not adequate time to absorb the drug in the GI to provide relief, the drug often lingers longer than desired period, and they are drugs that need to be eliminated metabolically in most cases by the liver.  There is a relatively new product called Sileo that is a micro-dose of a commonly used veterinary tranquilizer that is very effective, quick acting (it absorbs by transmucosally after application on the gums), and relieves anxiety without obvious sedation or lingering side effects.  Its main con at this point is cost.

I have found herbal calming remedies so largely ineffective that they do not make my list as a legitimate strategy to manage thunderstorm anxiety in dogs.  I usually tell owners that they may be worth a try because they are generally safe and they have nothing to lose other than a few bucks in trying them.

Realistically, most people never find a cure, but the right mix of some or all of the above.  If it is affordable, Sileo has been the most effective treatment that I have used for my own dog, but even at wholesale pricing, I find it cost prohibitive with a daily thunderstorm occurring every day in Florida from early July through late October.  I also do not like the notion of drugging (albeit a micro-dose) my dog for 3 months out of the year.  Thus, I generally reserve Sileo for major tropical storms and hurricanes, rely on Thundershirt with occasional Valium and scratching Bernie’s head.  My presence per my wife’s observance, makes a huge difference in how Bernie responds to management strategies, which is why I often take him to work with me during the summer months.

My advice to you is to work with your vet to find the right approach for your dog and go with the right mix of approaches may require both natural and pharmaceutical management.

Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms.  In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport.  He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health  blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.

Pheromone Treatment For Dogs And Cats? Really?

There’s always something new coming out that is the next great thing to make your pet’s life better. Myths get perpetuated on social media like gospel truth. What’s real and what’s just hype?

Pheromones sure sound sketchy. What are they? A pheromone is a chemical secreted by the body that is emitted and detected by other individuals of the same species. Pheromones are a means of “silent communication” so to speak. They can be used to communicate such messages as danger, food, territory, desire to breed, or calming. They do not have a smell that we can detect, but are detected through nasal passages or organs in the mouth.

Scientists have figured out which chemicals communicate what message in a variety of species. They also created synthetic versions of these chemicals for production. For instance, cats will often rub their face and cheeks against an object (or person!). Why are they doing this? They are applying a pheromone to that surface that “marks” that object or pant leg as “theirs.” Once many objects in a house are claimed, they can relax, knowing they are in their own domain. With dogs, a pheromone has been discovered that nursing mother dogs emit. It has a calming effect on the puppies. Puppies that know mom is there will eat better, sleep better, and eliminate better.

Companies have created these two pheromones (one for cats, one for dogs) for people to use at home to help reduce stress in their pets. So this is all well and good, but…really? I know, it sounds bogus. I was a huge skeptic when I first heard about them. It all sounds so abstract, and as a scientist, I need proof.

Well, there is proof! And it’s not the “my friend’s mom’s friend’s cousin says it works” kind of proof. Well designed, controlled, double blinded clinical studies have demonstrated an efficacy of >80% in 30 minutes for both the dog and cat versions. The original product was Feliway (for cats) and DAP, now called Adaptil, for dogs. They are still considered the “gold standard” by many veterinary behaviorists. Now other companies are coming out with their own versions.

These products come in a plug-in diffuser (think room air freshener) that you can use in your house. Large houses take a few diffusers to cover the space, as one diffuser covers 600-800 square feet. They also come in spray, which you can apply to a bed, carrier, or, for dogs, a bandana you can spray and the dog wears. The spray lasts 24 hours or less, so it’s not an easy long term solution, more for situational needs. They also come in collars the pets wears, and are replaced monthly (as are the diffusers).

I recommend pheromones often. They have no side effects, no odor, and can only help. If it doesn’t help, worst thing that happens is you’re out about $40 depending on the product. Some of my cat owners swear by them for helping inter-cat aggression, or most commonly, urinating outside of the litter box. My dog owners have been pleased when using it for dogs with generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, or situations like thunderstorms and fireworks. These are just a few examples of potential applications.

So while it sounds mystical, the science behind pheromones is sound, and many veterinary behaviorists have been recommending them for years! If you have a cat urinating outside the litterbox, or a dog that can’t cope with you leaving, these alone will not fix the problem. However, when coupled with a positively based approach, can help speed along improvement.

Here’s my article on other effective OTC anxiety treatments for dogs and cats.

Dr. Roger Holistic Vet guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian.  See more of her articles at her blog at VetChick.com

Natural Treatment Options For Stress/Anxiety In Dogs And Cats

Have a stressed out dog or cat? Do not feel that you are alone. While for some it may sound unusual or even comical to hear that a dog or cat may live with stress or anxiety, it is far more common than most people realize. Unfortunately, relieving the stress is not a simple matter when it comes to dogs and cats. Since we cannot lay our dogs and cats out on a couch to talk out their issues, it is our job to instead try to identify the stress triggers, then lessen their impact or engage in as much avoidance of the triggers as we can accomplish. While many articles you may read may focus on training, behavior, chemical, or serotonin increasing prescription medication to calm your stressed out pet, since this is a natural healing site, my focus in this piece will be on applications of natural remedies for anxiety disorders.

If you have arrived at this page, clearly you have already identified that your pet has stress issues. Thus, I do not plan to delve into the different kinds of, or manifestations of stress. Let us instead get right to the point and talk about how we can give these poor stressed out creatures (and yourselves) some peace.

Dogs

For dogs, I have seen a lot of success by supplementing with the amino acid, tryptophan. Many people recognize the amino acid tryptophan as a prevalent amino acid in turkey, which contributes to that stupor many of us feel following an overindulgent Thanksgiving dinner. I have also noted success by treating dogs with valerian, kava, and ginger. The problem with these aforementioned modalities is that after a few days, each commonly leads to refractoriness, meaning that the same doses become increasingly ineffective over time. Thus, I generally having a calming herbal treatment and a separate tryptophan based calming treatment, administered separately alternating every 2-3 days.

For our more challenging cases that do not respond effectively to these direct calming treatments, I would advise considering maintenance on St John’s Wort, an herbal treatment that raises serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of contentment and joy, while reducing feelings of fear and melancholy. In order to work properly, St. John’s Wort has to be administered daily as a maintenance treatment, as it takes time for it to build serotonin to an effective therapeutic level. Thus, it can take several weeks to see an improvement with St. John’s Wort. The good news, however, is that the aforementioned herbal and amino acid regimen can safely be used in conjunction with St. John’s Wort.

Pet formulations of all of these treatments can be found through a simple internet search. However, be careful to select reputable and positively reviewed products, as this industry is not FDA regulated and full of bogus products.

Cats

Cats I have found that stressed or anxious cats respond most favorably to a spray and plug in diffuser called Feliway.   Feliway is a synthesized version of a feline pheromone that provides them feelings of contentment.  A pheromone is a hormone messenger that is excreted by mammalian species that emits a scent that is picked up by other members of the species.

This particular pheromone in secreted by the glands of cats near the base of the ear.  They commonly rub this scent on people as that are getting pet and even commonly on inanimate surfaces.  When they are doing that, they are marking that person or object as safe.

By emitting a Feliway diffuser plug in, that pheromone makes the room smell more safe for cats, thereby often helping relieve stress and anxiety.  The spray works for 6-8 hours, so it is ideal to spray on a favorite stuffed toy or handkerchief that can be kept in the carrier with the cat for car travel or trips to the vet.

Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms.  In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport.  He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health  blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.