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Accueil veterinaires comportementalistes Publications internationales veterinaires comportementalistes Storm and Noise Phobias

Storm and Noise Phobias

T.M. Curtis

Revue : 2007 North American Veterinary Conference: Small Animal and Exotics Section - Orlando, Florida, USA

College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA.

Anxiety in humans is defined as "The apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of dysphoria and/or somatic symptoms of tension (vigilance and scanning, increased motor activity, etc.)" (Overall). The focus of this anxiety can be internal or external. Also for humans, fear is defined as "A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger." In animals, the subjective state of fear is presumed to exist when they exhibit specific behaviors, eg, avoidance, whining, and crying.

Fear is "An adaptive response that prompts an individual to remove or protect itself from dangers or noxious stimuli and thus increase its chances of survival" (Beaver). Most fears are learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure. Phobia is a fear reaction that is persistent over time, is consistent in terms of what causes the fear response, and is learned, irrational, not adaptive. It may be, but is not necessarily, intense (hysteria, catatonia, panic) in its manifestation.

So what's "normal" fear vs. phobia? Experiencing fear every time a hungry lion charges at you is normal (run, hide, defend yourself). Experiencing fear when lightning hits a nearby tree is normal (run, hide). Experiencing fear every time there is a dark cloud in the sky is a phobia.

Subjectively identifying fear is easy. We just "know" when our pets are anxious or afraid. But objectively identifying fear is more difficult. For example, is the panting that the dog is doing because of the heat or is he afraid? Is the whining that the dog is doing because she's aroused and excited, or because she's afraid or nervous? It's important to look for combinations and context.

Possible causes of fears and phobias include genetic factors, traumatic or aversive events, restricted early experiences, and/or intentional reinforcement. Fears and phobias associated with noise are not uncommon in dogs and can be seen as early as 9 weeks old. Problems severe enough to cause owners to seek professional help occur in approximately 20% of dogs (Beaver). Noise phobias usually develop over an extended period and examples include thunder, fireworks, and gun shots. More subtle examples include the dishwasher, the rustling of a plastic garbage bag, and even the toilet paper dispenser.

The diagnosis of a noise phobia is straightforward, as usually the fear-eliciting sound is loud and distinct. The owner can usually identify when the noise occurs and can identify the animal's response.

The prognosis varies greatly and depends on the individual, the duration of the phobia, the ability to control the stimulus during treatment, and the success of finding an effective controllable stimulus for desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS&CC).

Treatment of noise phobias involves exerting control over the pet and the environment. Ideally, except during training sessions, the pet should not be exposed to the fear-evoking stimulus. Management steps include identifying the offending stimuli and the thresholds for them. It is important to make sure that all noises that evoke fear have been identified. Next, establish a gradient of stimuli for the DS&CC exercises. With DS&CC there is the need to be able to control the intensity of the stimulus. This can be done using an audiotape (CD) or a videotape. The animal is retrained with food rewards in a controlled situation. The "sit/stay/relax" exercises work very well for this.

Flooding is not generally recommended as the pet needs to be exposed to stimulus for as long as it takes to adapt and relax. Otherwise, the technique can be reinforcing, eg, the stimulus is removed while the dog is still anxious and afraid.

Under NO circumstances should punishment be used. It will only serve to add to the animal's level of anxiety and fear. Keeping the pet calm and relaxed in general is a very important part of treatment.

Drug therapy can be an important part of the treatment of noise phobias. As with the treatment of separation anxiety, a daily-administered, long-term maintenance medication can be used to decrease the pet's overall level of anxiety. Options include clomipramine (ClomicalmT) at the dose of 1 - 2 mg/kg BID and fluoxetine (Prozac®) at the dose of 1 mg/kg/day. For times when the pet is actually going to be exposed to the fear-inducing noise, a fast-acting, short-duration drug can be very helpful. Options include the benzodiazepines alprazolam (Xanax®) and diazepam (Valium®). All of these drugs, including ClomicalmT, are not approved for use in dogs or cats with noise phobias. As such, written consent must be obtained from the owner.

Prevention of noise phobias may be possible through the early exposure of the pet to as many different stimuli as possible. Habituation during the early, sensitive periods may help prevent many of the fears and phobias seen in adult cats and dogs - however, there is no guarantee.

Dogs can show anxiety or fear with wind, rain alone, thunder, lightning, and so forth. There may or may not have been an inciting cause to explain the current fearful behavior. Fear and anxiety in response to storms can manifest in a variety of ways. One dog may simply hide or stay near the owner. Another may tremble and shake, while yet another will salivate profusely. The worst cases are those that involve the dog "wanting to be anywhere other than where it is." If the dog is outside, it wants to get inside. If the dog is inside, it wants to get outside. It often appears as though the dog just wants to get out of its own skin. These dogs can do extensive damage to the inside of homes (they will dig at the carpet, at doors and windows), to the outside of homes (they will dig out of fences), and/or to themselves (they can break teeth and nails trying to get out of crates, rooms, and fences).

Treatment of thunderstorm phobia may be simple. Bringing the pet indoors during the storm and providing television or radio "noise" may be enough for some dogs. For some, as long as the owner is home they'll be okay. Others do fine if they're provided with a "safe hiding place" such as a bathtub, a laundry basket, or a closet.

In some dogs, given the complex nature of storm phobia, treatment can be very difficult. Since the dog may be responding to impossible-to-control stimuli such as changes in barometric pressure, ionization, and lighting, it can be very difficult to desensitize the dog to these stimuli. However, if the dog does respond in an anxious manner to the sound of rain and/or thunder, desensitization and counter-conditioning can be done using various storm CDs. It is important to start with the least threatening stimulus, such as rain, and move slowly and gradually to the sound of thunder. The dog is to be rewarded with a yummy treat for being calm and relaxed as the CD is played in the background, in a very controlled way by the owner. The sessions should be about 5 to 10 minutes every day, or as the owner's schedule permits. The CD should NOT be left on as background noise, as this may become a flooding technique that is likely to worsen the anxiety.

Pharmacological treatment is the same as for any noise phobia. For dogs with storm phobia, it is recommended that they be maintained on a drug like clomipramine or fluoxetine for the duration of storm season. This will help to decrease their overall level of anxiety and reactivity. Alprazolam (at the dose of 0.02 - 0.05 mg/kg) can be given 30 to 60 minutes prior to the storm, or as soon after the storm starts as possible. For people who live in areas where there is a "storm season," it is recommended that their dogs are dosed with alprazolam 2 to 3 times a day, as needed. For dogs that are particularly destructive during a storm, acepromazine may be added to the alprazolam (NEVER use it alone) starting at 1/10 of the normal sedative dose and increased in small increments as needed.

There is no reason to assume that storm phobia doesn't occur in cats. However, they tend to hide instead of exhibiting destructive behavior.

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