What to do about thunderstorm phobia

by Sodhi N Science Writer, AVA
11 Jul 2017
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A fear response in dogs is normal, but an excessive fear of certain stimuli in dogs is not necessarily so. At the 2017 AVA Conference behaviourist, Martin Godbout spoke about the diagnosis and treatments of thunderstorm phobia in dogs. He likened it to astraphobia in humans (needing others for reassurance) – which can lead to agoraphobia.

He showed video examples of the physical signs of anxiety that owners very often misinterpret as relaxed behaviours such as excessive yawning, ears pulled back, dilated pupils, hypersalivation, lip-licking, and hyperventilation.

Dr. Godbout distinguished between phobias and anxiety. A phobia is an irrational fear with an exaggerated reaction to the stimuli, whereas anxiety is a general feeling of nervousness and unease without the presence of specific stimuli.

With ‘normal’ animals, constant exposure to stimuli they may find fearful habituates them to these situations. However, a key sign of a phobia is the inability of the animal to habituate to the situation.

So, as the name suggests, dogs with a thunderstorm phobia have an exaggerated fear of thunderstorms to which they cannot be habituated. Dogs with this phobia can condition themselves to start reacting earlier; where once they reacted to the sound of thunder, they can slowly begin reacting to preemptive signs of a storm such as rain, wind, darkening skies and in some cases, Dr. Godbout described three types of phobias, with four evaluation criteria and discussed the management and treatment for all three types. This is summarised in the table below.

He then discussed treatments for dogs with thunderstorm phobia. These included avoiding reinforcing unwanted behaviours through excessive patting and attention, providing a safe area and distraction, and nutraceutical medications for type 1 dogs. Dogs classed with types 2 and 3 phobias, in addition to the behavioral and environmental management strategies for type 1 dogs, were recommended pharmaceutical medications: a combination of antidepressants, antianxiety and sedatives depending on the diagnosis of the individual.

Dr. Godbout also gave a talk on the emotional lives of dogs, presenting evidence that dogs do have complex emotions and they can indeed recognise a range of emotions in humans. This, of course, confirms what I’m sure we already knew, that our dogs are capable of, and do really love us.

This article appeared in the July 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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