Storm phobias: No other problem is as widespread, as devastating for the animal, and as frustrating for the veterinarian in
practice as is the issue of managing animals experience seasonal terror.
Karen L. Overall
The issue of noise and storm phobias and their tendency to be associated with other anxiety disorders was an issue much discussed
by me and others at the recent AVMA meetings and the associated behavior 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. During the time that my mother had Susie, the dog became more
fearful of storms of all kinds, as are many dogs in the southeast United States.
Whenever my mother would tell me how much Susie had suffered during the most recent storm, I would launch into my speech about
how much medication can help, and how important it is to treat these dogs early and often.
My mother's response was invariably that drugs were overused. Susie just needed love. My mother would hold her to get through
the storm, and Susie was fine, but tired, the next day. It's entirely possible that my mother could or would have taken advice
about medication from anyone but me, but this logic is also something that veterinarians in practice tell me they often hear
from clients. 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 mother was unable to care for her asked
if they could keep her. I had no choice but to acquiesce: they loved her and were in tears at the thought of me taking her
away. Again, I mentioned treatment for storms, but their response was that their other little dog was also distressed during
storms and they would just sit with her.
The day after the AVMA meetings wrapped up, I answered the phone to hear the voices of Susie's adopted parents. They wanted
me to know that there had been a terrible series of storms the night before.
Susie had trouble breathing during the first one. During the second storm — in the middle of the night 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 was no; her terror worsened with
time and exposure. How could I revisit the drug argument with someone who 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 the neurochemistry of the dog and the severity
and unpredictability of the storms.
Data suggest that ~70 percent of all dogs who react profoundly to miscellaneous noises also 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 phobias also 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 risk for 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 other sounds (wind, rain), darkness,
changes in light intensity, barometric pressure changes, ozone changes and changes in human behavior. Any of these can lead
to panic and must be treated. The medications that treat phobias also treat panic.