Saturday, June 13, 2009

Behavior Problems in Pets: Fear of Fireworks

Another already very hot summer has arrived and with it come the holidays with fireworks. While they are awesome to watch for us pet owners the affect on our companions are quite different. Today’s comment deals with this problem and provides some background info as well as some suggestion as to how to make things better for our pets.

That a dog (or person) can be startled when surprised by a sudden loud noise is quite normal, as is an immediate fear response such as increased alertness and rapid heart rate. A show of fear when startled is a normal adaptive response that prepares a dog (or any species) to escape from a possible threat to its safety. In the natural state, this is a useful and possibly life-saving reflex. However in pets, the feeling and display of fear is usually not needed and can sometimes become harmful.

A dog’s excessive fear, or phobia, is damaging to its welfare. The behaviors that result from the fear, such as trembling, whimpering, panting, constantly seeking the owners attention (or protection), and attempting to escape from the noise, can cause injury to the dog and are stressful to the owner. This can be particularly frustrating when a pet over-reacts to fireworks even though it is clear that the stimulus that caused the problem is temporary and clearly of no threat.

A fear of fireworks and of loud noises generally is common in dogs and other pets and in many cases is accompanied by other anxieties, such as thunderstorm phobia or separation anxiety. Dogs with multiple anxieties appear be predisposed to such fears.

For many dogs, the age at which such a phobia develops is not known. Sometimes, even with older dogs, it can originate from being exposed to a sudden loud noise that is particularly disturbing. Some pets may have been exposed to stressful or loud noises when still very young, leaving a lasting bad memory. For fireworks, it may not be just the noise causing the problem, it may be the flash of light that accompanies the loud noise, or the strong sulfur smell that comes after the explosion, or it may be the suddenness or the frequency of the noise (e.g. an explosion or a screeching rocket).

An unfortunate difference between people and dogs who suffer from phobias is that in people we can ask questions and discuss and identify the root of the problem. This can be important in getting to a solution. Usually in dogs we cannot know how or when the phobia started, and so must work with the tools we have to help find a solution.

The most important aspect of solving a dog phobia problem is to manage and de-condition the behavior. Veterinarians and clinic staff to whom the owner turns for advice need to be able to advise the owner on what should and should not be done. In educating the owner it is important to remember that the goal is to change the pet’s association with the fireworks from negative and frightening to neutral, through a process of gradual desensitization.

What owners should do to help their dog is not as clear as what they should not do. The first step is to avoid doing anything that reinforces the behavior. For instance, if the dog runs away and escapes the noise, that behavior is reinforced. Similarly, the fear response will be reinforced if an owner rewards the behavior with extra attention to the dog through stroking it, or trying to reassure it in any other way. The opposite approach of becoming angry or reproaching the dog will also be counterproductive. One tactic that may be useful is playing a game with the dog to distract it from the fireworks, or having it play with another dog (as long as the other dog does not have the same fear).

Because it is beyond most owners to make the commitment to change what are usually strongly established canine behaviors, a veterinarian can dispense various products to help alleviate these phobias. Regrettably, the treatments that are available for dog phobias are very limited, none have been proven to work completely, and there are no drugs registered to treat fireworks phobias in dogs. Treatments for fear of fireworks fall into two broad categories: Drugs and alternative therapies such as dog appeasing pheromone and homeopathic treatments.

The drugs most commonly discussed in treating fear of fireworks include benzodiazepines, the alpha-adrenergic propanolol (generally administered with phenobarbitone), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). All of these have possible side effects, such as lethargy and sedation, some may cause vomiting and none have really been proven to work in relieving the fear of fireworks. In the case of SSRIs and TCAs, treatment needs to be started weeks ahead of the stimulus that causes the phobia. In many cases, this is just not practical. Acepromazine is not recommended because of the sedation it can produce, and it can also sensitize the dog to sound, potentially making the problem worse. In contrast, natural homeopathic remedies do not cause side effects and have received promising reports.

Homeopathy is a traditional area of medicine that has become established over centuries of use, and now appears to be making a resurgence in veterinary medicine. The leader in veterinary homeopathic remedies is HomeoPet, and reports suggest that its product TFLN (Alternative Remedy for Fear of Thunder, Fireworks & Loud Noise) has produced substantial improvement in dogs suffering from a fear of fireworks. This is the only treatment for fear of fireworks that has been tested in a placebo controlled study, described in a report by veterinary behaviorists in the Veterinary Journal.1 In this study, compared with baseline, TFLN produced a significant improvement (71%) in the severity of behavioral signs.

An interesting finding in this study was that the owners of dogs who received a placebo were instructed on how to manage their dog’s fear. Just this good advice alone was followed by a significant improvement of 65%: improvement that is consistent with the placebo response generally seen in behavior studies in dogs.

The improvement reported after starting TFLN matches the results of a survey of dog owners who used a slightly different HomeoPet product designed to treat anxiety. In this survey, 25 of the treated dogs suffered from more than one anxiety, one of which was either fear of fireworks and/or fear of loud noises. Of those 25 dogs, the owners reported that 23 (92%) benefited from treatment. These owners indicated that they would use the product again, providing substantial evidence for the client satisfaction that can come from use of HomeoPet products.

Regardless of the treatment used to reduce a pet’s fear of fireworks and loud noises, it is important to recognize that a single approach is very rarely adequate. Any treatment should be combined with every possible effort to institute constructive behavioral modification that can improve the welfare of the pet and reduce the stress on the pet and owner alike.

Contributed by: Author Tom Farrington MVB MRCVS VetMFHom
Cracknell NR, Mills DS. A double-blind placebo-controlled study into the efficacy of a homeopathic remedy for fear of firework noises in the dog (Canis familiaris). Vet J. In press

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