Many of our pets are sensitive to the booms made by fireworks in the days surrounding the fourth of July. As a result, dogs break through fences or even windows, running away in fear and confusion and often ending up in the local animal shelter. If your dog has moderate to severe noise or thunder phobia, medications can help tremendously. Here are some tips for helping your fearful pet get through the fourth of July.
Talk to your veterinarian now not on the first of July! The requests for sedatives come pouring into the veterinary office starting at the end of June. It makes it hard for the veterinarian to take the time needed to help you choose the right medication for your individual pet.
Take time to find the right medication, not just "a sedative". Commonly-prescribed sedatives such as acepromazine ("ace") do not help the underlying anxiety. Imagine being afraid of spiders, but unable to move or react as one crawled on you. This is the effect of ace, and explains why noise phobia often worsens after it is prescribed and used year after year in this capacity. Ace is a useful sedating agent, but it is very important to try to find the right anti-anxiety medication as well. If your veterinarian will only prescribe acepromazine, consider a second opinion.
If medications are prescribed, please try the medication before the fireworks start. It is important to know how the medication will affect your specific dog. Some dogs, for example, become MORE anxious on the medications. The dose can also be variable; my dog might require twice as much medication as your dog to exhibit the same effect. So, try it when you are home, all is quiet, and you have time to check in with your veterinarian about how the medication trial went. If your dog reacts by settling down and relaxing, or taking a nap from which he is fairly easily roused, you know you are good to try it during the real event.
Always ask your veterinarian what the maximum dosage of medication is for your dog. If your neighbors are still shooting off the bottle rockets at 2 am, you want to know ahead of time if it is okay to repeat the dose. Similarly, always ask your veterinarian if it is okay to combine medications. For example, if you have both acepromazine and alprazolam (xanax) and find you need them both, it is safe and effective to use them together but you must decrease the dose of both of them or your dog may become dangerously sedated. Your veterinarian can help guide you on these dosing and drug combination decisions.
Make sure to give the medication at least 30-60 minutes prior to the start of any fireworks (or as directed by your veterinarian). For some dogs, this may mean giving the medication pre-emptively, twice daily, in the days surrounding the fourth of July. For other dogs, it may mean giving a dose at the first sign of anxiety or well before the known start of the event.
Finally, always ask your veterinarian for a referral to a qualified trainer or animal behaviorist who can work with you to desensitize your dog to the sounds of fireworks, storms, and other noises and events. It is very common for dogs to become more anxious as they get older. Working on a specific desensitization and counterconditioning protocol is very important for overall long-term improvement. (Please note: techniques for treating anxiety should never include any type of punishment including squirt bottles, collar corrections or shock collars so hire an educated trainer or behaviorist who uses force-free and positive methods.)
A Quick Guide to Anti-Anxiety Drugs in Veterinary Medicine
Benzodiazepines (alprazolam or xanax, diazepam or valium, clorazepate, clonazepam, lorazepam). The drugs within this class differ in terms of the time they take to have an effect as well as how long they last. So, if your vet prescribes xanax, but it doesn't last long enough, be sure to tell your veterinarian so they can prescribe a different benzodiazepine to see if it works better for your dog. These medications should NOT be used if your dog has a history of aggression. Side effects are usually minimal, but some dogs will have the opposite of the intended effect and will become agitated. If this occurs, the drug should not be used in your pet.
Trazodone: Trazodone is a drug that fairly rapidly increases serotonin levels and usually takes effect within 60 minutes, lasting between 4-6 hours. Some dogs do get some gastrointestinal upset with this medication, but most dogs (80%) exhibit no negative side effects. Like any anti-anxiety medication, trazodone can cause the opposite of the intended effect, so it is still very important to try it prior to the scary event. In most dogs, it causes a mild sedation with a good decrease in the symptoms of anxiety. It has a wide safe dosing range, so be sure to ask your vet what the maximum dose for your dog is, in case you see no efficacy at the prescribed dose.
Clonidine: This medication is used in people to treat panic attacks and other conditions of fear and anxiety. It works by affecting the sympathetic nervous system, and decreasing the physical response to anxiety (like high blood pressure and a racing heart). It seems to work well in our veterinary patients as well. Side effects include vomiting and unintended excitement, similar to trazodone. Some dogs react well to this medication, but many veterinarians are not comfortable using it in this context.
Long-term daily medications - If your dog has levels of anxiety that persist beyond the fourth of July, or is anxious over every day noises, your veterinarian may recommend a daily anti-anxiety medication such as fluoxetine (prozac) or clomipramine (clomicalm). This type of treatment can be combined with the above situational medications in order to treat very severe storm phobias. Always ask your veterinarian before giving your dogs multiple medications or combining previously prescribed medication.
Most of these drugs are used off-label, meaning that they are not FDA approved for veterinary use in this context. You will likely pick up the medication at your local human pharmacy.