A few weeks back, I listened to an interesting segment on Science Friday about the treatment of arachnophobia (fear of spiders) in people. Researchers reported that exposure therapy sessions lasting only two hours resulted in patients more or less completely overcoming their arachnophobia, and these same people were phobia-free six months later with no additional treatment. Cool.

This got me to thinking about one of the more common behavioral problems veterinarians and pet owners have to deal with: storm phobias in dogs. I’ve treated many pets for the condition and have had one myself. As my dog Owen got older, his storm-related anxiety worsened (a common occurrence)  — until his hearing began to fail. Watching him sleep through some impressive flash-booms during his last summer made me view his deafness as at least a partial blessing.

Unfortunately, I don’t think veterinary behaviorists will ever be able to come up with a two hour therapy protocol that will cure storm phobias in dogs. The arachnophobia researchers made the point that their patients responded so well to treatment because they quickly learned that a spider’s movements are predictable and controllable; the same cannot be said of a thunderstorm. I’d also argue that while one sense is primarily involved in arachnophobia — sight — storm phobic dogs often react to multiple cues associated with an approaching storm: the sound of thunder, the flash of lightening, and changes in atmospheric pressure or ambient electrical charges.

So while dealing with storm phobia in dogs may be more difficult than arachnophobia in people, this radio segment did remind me of the often overlooked role that desensitization and counter-conditioning can play in dealing with the problem. When faced with a storm phobic dog, veterinarians, myself included, rely primarily on prescribing anti-anxiety medications and sometimes recommending pheromone preparations and garments designed to comfort or disrupt the ability to sense changes associated with thunderstorms. These drugs and products certainly have a role in treatment, but to use them in the absence of a more comprehensive behavioral modification plan increases the risk of therapeutic failure.

Even in combination, behavioral modification and drug therapy for storm phobias is rarely 100 percent effective. This isn’t too surprising, because being extra vigilant and a little on edge during a severe storm has the potential to save one’s life. Psychologists say that many human phobias are an exaggerated form of a normal fear of something that has the potential to do us harm (e.g., heights, venomous snakes and spiders, etc.). It seems to me that storm phobias in dogs are similar in this regard.

I don’t mean to discourage owners from attempting to treat storm phobias; therapy can go a long way towards reducing the severity and frequency of a dog’s symptoms. A study published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that "panting, pacing, trembling, remaining near the caregiver, hiding, excessive salivation, destructiveness, excessive vocalization, self-trauma, and inappropriate elimination all decreased significantly during treatment" and "30 of the 32 dogs that completed the study had a degree of improvement, as measured by caregivers’ global assessment."

Decreasing the intensity of a dog’s terror to any extent can make a big difference in the quality of life for everyone involved.

Tomorrow: What’s involved in a desensitization counter-conditioning program.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Roxyupclose by Pacdog / via Flickr