Sawbones: (Growls) Woof woof woof!
I’m sorry; he’s not normally like this. He gets anxious during storms. In fact, anxious doesn’t really cover it. Look at him. He’s out of his mind. And off he goes!
Storm Anxiety Symptoms
Sawbones has nearly all the usual storm anxiety symptoms common in dogs. An oncoming storm triggers a mania of:
- Running around like crazy
- Barking and growling like crazy
- Hiding like crazy
- Destroying furniture like crazy
The only symptoms he doesn’t have are:
- Panting and trembling (he’s already too far gone)
- Incontinence (thank goodness!)
I’ve done my research, and Sawbones perfectly fits the profile of a dog susceptible to storm anxiety.
He’s mostly blue heeler, and herding dogs are genetically susceptible. We took him in as a stray off the mean streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and rescue dogs are often more susceptible. Also prone to anxiety: dogs who have had negative experiences during storms. Sawbones weathered Oklahoma storms and possibly even tornadoes while he was homeless. Poor guy.
Tips to Take the Edge off Storm Anxiety
We’re working through it. Here are some simple tricks I’ve learned that seem to help Sawbones get a handle on his fear.
- Bring him inside.
- Get him into a room with no windows (we use the garage).
- Don’t shout or do anything to raise his anxiety levels (he’s not listening anyway).
- Leash him up so he can’t hurt himself or damage anything.
- Play classical music loudly enough to mask the thunder. (You’ll want to choose wisely. Fantastic as it might be, Beethoven’s Fifth is as anxiety-inducing as a storm.)
But even if he’s cocooned in an interior room with a lullaby of a nocturne playing, he’s still a nervous wreck, albeit a more contained one.
I wanted to do more.
I came across desensitization as a tactic and decided to give it a try. In principle, all you do is recreate the conditions of a storm to get your dog used to them.
The problem is that the conditions of a thunderstorm are nearly impossible to recreate. I ran the sprinklers against the garage door, played a thunderstorm track at full volume on my iPod dock and flipped the lights on and off.
Sawbones just looked at me, unimpressed.
The fact that Sawbones responds to storms 10 to 20 minutes before I’m aware of them tipped me off that he’s probably attuned to environmental changes I can’t see. Barometric changes, static electric fields or possibly the smell of the oxides of nitrogen or ozone produced by lightning; these could all contribute to Sawbones’s anxiety.
What My Vet Said
At Sawbones’s annual checkup at the Pet Medical Center of Edmond, Dr. Joe Stratton told me he has treated hundreds of dogs with anxiety. Sometimes it happens with storms, but fireworks can set animals off too, especially around New Year’s Eve or July Fourth.
Sawbones has seizures, and Dr. Stratton sees a high correlation between dogs that have seizures and those that are sensitive to storms. He believes both symptoms are related to electrical activity in the brain, and that anxiousness causes high activity. When electrical activity is too high in the brain, it can trigger seizures. It makes sense.
Dr. Stratton has recommended the Thundershirt (affiliate link) to more than 100 caretakers of storm-anxious dogs over the past 3 years. It’s a vest that you put on during storms that hugs dogs to calm them down, sort of like swaddling an infant.
He reports about a 50 to 60% success rate judging by the 2 dozen reports he’s received back. Worth a try at $39.95 plus shipping, no?
Did It Work for Sawbones?
Yes, it did! I can tell he’s still on edge, but combined with all the old tricks, it keeps him under control. He’s having fewer storm-triggered seizures as well.
Now my biggest challenge is getting the Thundershirt on Sawbones half an hour before a storm arrives. I use the MyWarn weather app to give me alerts of inbound storm systems, and it works great.
I’ve found that if I don’t act early, sometimes by the time I do get the jacket on him he’s too far gone for it to work.
What If None of That Works for Your Dog?
In extreme cases of storm anxiety, Dr. Stratton says he prescribes alprazolam (Xanax) to keep the dog calm.
When that doesn’t work, Dr. Stratton says, it’s usually because the dosage was too high, which can have a stimulating effect, or because the medicine was delivered too late when the dog had already become overly anxious.
I’m glad we didn’t have to take that additional step, but I would have considered it. It’s good to know there’s another option.
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This featured contribution was written by David Christopher, who has written about animal welfare for The Oklahoman, is a contributor to the NewsOK Pets Podcast, and blogs at davidmichaelchristopher.com.