The time of year is fast approaching when veterinarians receive call after call regarding canine thunderstorm fear, firework terror and travel anxiety.
Folks want a “quick fix” (a.k.a. pharmaceutical help) for their nervous, anxious pooches. But it’s best to anticipate these problems and have a conversation with your vet’s office in advance of the car trip or thunderstorm season.
Why? Because a combination of behavior modification and drug therapy takes time and planning.
Plan in Advance
Too often, there’s a note on my desk that says a pet “needs something for travel today.” Or “Client afraid of the thunderstorm tonight. Wants drugs.” Here are some reasons that’s not an easy request — or Rx — to fill:
- There is no “simple” or “magic” pill to fix these complex pet anxieties. Most anxiolytic drugs work best when part of a solid behavior modification program.
- Different drugs or combinations of drugs are used depending on the severity of your pet’s anxiety, the length of time your pet may need anxiolytic therapy and the health status of your fearful friend.
- In dogs and cats, as in humans, anti-anxiety drugs do not affect all patients the same way. It’s nice to “try out” a particular drug, dose in a less intense situation and see how your pet responds.
Working on behavior modification can render amazing results.
Dogs and cats not used to car travel, for example, can become much less anxious if introduced to travel slowly. Get the pet used to the travel crate, if indicated. Place your pet in non-moving vehicles first. Begin with very short, safe car trips down the driveway and work up to buzzing around the block. Do this repeatedly.
Many people discover their pet can become a seasoned traveler and actually enjoy the ride. This takes time and patience. If you anticipate summer travel, the time to start working on car anxiety is now.
Thunderstorms and fireworks often cause extreme anxiety in certain pets, so get veterinary behavior advice now, before intense summer storms and firework displays start. Try to anticipate severe weather or 4th of July activities — and don’t leave your pet alone. This, of course, is sometimes impossible.
Lots of people still believe their pet has to be “tranqued” in order to sustain travel or noise. Being in a tranquilized state may render your pet immobile, but it’s not going to lessen the anxiety. Instead, we want your pet better adjusted to the fearful situation.
Human anxiolytic and antidepressant medications have revolutionized veterinary medicine. There are various drugs to choose from, and it’s important to remember that all animals do not react predictably to these meds, just as in people. But 1 drug in particular — trazodone — is proving to have many uses in veterinary medicine.
Drugs that help animals with fear and anxiety fall into many classes, including selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, antihistamines and tricyclic antidepressants. Trazodone is classified as a SARI (serotonin antagonist and re-uptake inhibitor).
- Travel anxiety: Trazodone has both anti-anxiety and mild sedative effects, making your pet less anxious and a bit sleepy for the ride.
- Thunderstorm and noise phobias: These are some of the hardest phobias to treat, but trazodone can be added to other medications and is helpful in acute situations. The sedative effect is beneficial, too.
- Trazodone is also helpful for pets suffering from other anxiety disorders and needing post-operative or cage rest.
Here are some more tips to help calm your pet’s fears during thunderstorms:
- Side effects, when used as directed, seem to be few in our patients. It is well tolerated over a wide dosage range.
- Like all drugs, trazodone has some interactions with other drugs; your veterinarian should be aware of all the drugs your pet is taking.
- Trazodone has been used less routinely in cats but appears to be safe.
- This drug should be used with caution in patients with severe cardiac, liver or kidney disease.
- This drug is not expensive — always a plus!
- Although any drug can be abused, the human abuse potential is less for trazodone than many other anxiolytic drugs.
As always, please “follow the doctor’s orders” when dosing trazodone or any prescription drug. Don’t increase the drug or use in combination with other drugs without asking your vet first.
Appropriate use of pharmaceuticals may help you and your furry friends have a calm and relaxing summer and vacation season. Happy travels.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed May 3, 2017.