Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Strategies for helping pets navigate storm and fireworks season are not one-size fits all

Each year at this time, just as many other people here in Michigan, I delight in the arrival of the extended daylight hours; the warmer weather; not worrying about ice-covered roads; outdoor gatherings. Fireworks isn’t included on that list, and though I can appreciate other’s enthusiasm for them, they are the bane of those who share life with pets. The noise is the chief offender when it comes to frightening pets, but I've no doubt that if the light and smell resulting from them are within a detectable distance of a pet, they’re contributors, too. It’s understandable; the loud pops and bangs are confusing and occur without any sense of place. Though it need not be a precursor, for a pet that already has some level of anxiety or fearfulness, the things that make fireworks enjoyable to humans only feed the behaviors that signal to us that our pet is having even more trouble coping.

Merry-making isn't the only culprit giving pet frayed nerves this time of year: thunderstorms are just as responsible.

Over the years, I’ve had more companion animals in my care that find themselves in this situation than I care to count. My own dogs were included in that group. I’ve learned a few things in that time, and thankfully, there are more strategies and tools to help stave off the anxiety and fear associated with the nightly light and noise shows—and to assuage it if it’s already a problem. The key, as is the case with so many things, is to anticipate and plan ahead.

The approaches of using games to help dogs make a more positive association, T-Touch and Thundershirts is something that I’ve written about in the past, but there’s still more that families can do to keep the peace during these particularly taxing periods of time. Whether you've a young pet or an old friend in hospice or end-of-life—the latter posing its own set of emotional challenges—there's some flexibility in choices.

Having attended the Science of Animal Behavior Conference in June, it was not lost on me that the behavioral challenges that result from anxiety and stress in pets was at the top of the heap of topics. Out of the nine lectures that I attended, the majority of them were centered around anxiety and stress in cats and dogs, and science-backed ways to help them be more resilient in the face of it, or at the least feel more comfortable, safe and calm. A few things that veterinary behaviorists and other credentialed animal behavior professionals proposed during the event are covered below.

Pheromone analogs aim to appease

A staple in my day-to-day work, pheromone products work to promote a sense of calm and well-being in dogs and cats, and can be found at vet clinics, better pet stores or online. What are pheromones and how do they work? Pheromones are natural chemicals produced by mammals, and different types serve various functions depending on where they are secreted, but in this case, we're focusing on the ones that aim to appease, happy make, feel good. A synthetic form of the real thing, Adaptil for dogs (the collar is preferable), and Feliway for cats are available in a plug-in diffuser.

Herbal and nutraceutical approaches

Rescue Remedy - What’s in this tiny bottle does so much. Long sought after to alleviate anxiety in humans, there’s a formula for pets, too. Available at better pet and health food stores, no vet prescription needed.

ComposurePro chews – Available from veterinarians, these tasty gems are readily accepted by both dogs and cats. Bovine colostrum- and vitamin-based, this product promotes stress reduction and a sense of calm.

NutriCalm – A combination of amino acids and herbs, this product is available in capsule form for medium to large-sized dogs, and a liquid form for cats and smaller dogs. As with the aforementioned products and as the name suggests, it can be a help to promote a sense of chill.

Zylkene – This nutraceutical is something I'm really excited about. While attending a Fear Free workshop in Arizona, I spent some time learning about this product by the Vetoquinol company. What makes it unique? It's formulated with bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, and is good to implement before potentially stressful situations not limited to fireworks and storm season. Events like a move, bringing a new baby home, a visit to the groomer or vet and even preparing for the transition to an adoptive home are appropriate. Zylkene is purported to allow pets to be more receptive to behavior modification training as well.

Solloquin – Formulated with an amino acid as well as plant-based ingredients and others., this product from Nutramax Labratories boasts its ability to help dogs and cats get in their chill zone. Additionally, Solloquin is indicated to help address inappropriate elimination in cats, and would be a great addition to help make introductions between established family cats and new-kid-on-the-block kitties go more smoothly.

Though these products are not pharmaceuticals, and don't cause sedation per se, they still need to be used with care. Despite the fact that you'll likely be able to find them available for purchase online, there's no guarantee of their authenticity through that avenue. The good news is that you can get them through your veterinarian, which is where you can figure out which product or combination thereof is right for your furry friend. Your clinician can help you sort out any possible contraindications with existing herbal supplements, prescription medication and diagnosed medical conditions.

Scents and Sensability

One study indicates that essential oils -- four of them, to be specific -- may elicit a sense of calm in dogs. According to one study, The behavioral effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter, the essential oils containing coconut, ginger, ginseng and valerian seemed to promote better rest and less vocalization and barking in dogs. Knowing what I do about the power of smell and pets, I don't think essential oils are a great choice for every pet. It seems mindful to go with a trial to see how your dog responds to smelling a couple of drops applied to a bandana when they're at their best, and go from there.

Going further

One thing that was discussed frequently at SABC was the importance of how effective medication can be in addressing noise phobia. Anti-anxiety medication can be prescribed by your pet's veterinarian. Eileen Anderson summed up the topic (with Dr. Lynn Honeckman weighing in) with a post that's worth reading.

Having a discussion about Sileo, a new prescription option on the market, is a good idea if your pet is having trouble. Designed to home in on one pressing issue associated with fireworks, noise aversion, Sileo is administered transmucosally. This drug is not indicated for every dog, but that's something your veterinarian can help you decide.

Queue up the tunes

Music is an area of great interest in recent years, and while classical has been touted as the gold standard for soothing anxiety and offering an audible buffer to offending noise in dogs and cats, one study suggests that our canine friends respond favorably to reggae as well. After coming home from SABC, I ended up down a few rabbit holes of additional reading since noise phobia -- something that is of great interest to me since I see it frequently in my work -- was one of the topics covered at the event. One of the theories that experts in veterinary behavior have is that music that's heavy on bass and rhythm, like hard rock music, is effective. (Reggae certainly fits that criteria.)

Sally J. Foote, DVM, who specializes in animal behavior, noted that for her dog, playing belly dancing music has been helpful. This intrigued me because the rhythm, deep bass and instrumentation associated with this type of music seems the most sensible choice in blending out noise from thunder and fireworks. I've been experimenting with it with my charges, and it definitely seems worth pursuing. I created a playlist on Spotify that everyone can access and use.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

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