Dogs Who Hate Bugs and Storms
The Trouble with Phobias
May all beings be free of suffering.
—BUDDHIST PRAYER OF COMPASSION
Mabel, a delightful one-and-a-half-year-old spayed black Labrador retriever, was a typical happy, carefree dog living a virtual life of Riley in northern New England. But a month before she was brought to my clinic, her owners had taken her swimming with another canine friend. It was June, the weather was perfect, and the dogs had much fun splashing in and out of the water. Cue the rise of ominous music here.
At some point, her owners suddenly noticed that Mabel was not around. They searched and found her a few minutes later, buried beneath blankets in the back compartment of their crew cab truck, hiding as if in fear of some imminent threat. As the owners drove home, they noticed Mabel licking her belly and scratching a lot. At the time, they didn’t worry that much about her behavior, concluding that if something was bothering her, Mabel would soon shake it off.
It didn’t happen. From that day forward the poor Lab was a changed dog. Mabel was now always on the lookout. “Hypervigilant” was the term her owners used. Her tail was constantly tucked. She circled anxiously, as if anticipating that something awful was about to happen. At the time of the consultation, her owners reported that since the mystery incident, Mabel had not wanted to go for walks.
I had seen this type of problem before and was pretty sure I knew what had happened. At the swimming playdate that day, Mabel had probably received several painful bites from stinging flies. Now she was living in constant dread of them.
The owners acknowledged that this might be the case. The new, phobic Mabel had become highly reactive to flies. She appeared to be constantly scanning the environment. Inevitably, an occasional fly would get into the house, and Mabel would throw herself around in a state of panic, sometimes burrowing underneath things, just as she had done in the cab of the truck on the day of the triggering incident.
It wasn’t a brave new world, it was a fearful new one. The unbrave new Mabel even panicked when simply loaded into the truck and burrowed under whatever clothes and blankets she could find. Mabel’s doggy friend, the one she was playing with at the beach, became associated with the frightful event and, at the doggy friend’s house, where Mabel used to be happy and carefree, she now hid and refused to play.
Whatever had happened to Mabel, it was a life-changing experience, and she now had a specific phobia—an excessive and irrational fear that disrupted normal functioning in daily life.
To treat Mabel, I made three recommendations. First, the obvious: Mabel’s owners needed to avoid exposing Mabel to biting flies as far as that was possible. They also needed to enrich her home environment, providing plenty of distractions from her fears and entertainment to occupy her mind. Finally, we spoke about training her to go to a safe room, a place where she could get away from her winged nemeses.
I suggested using fly spray on her coat, a practice sometimes used on livestock. Mabel’s owners were worried that this would be too toxic and declined to follow this suggestion. So, to facilitate a speedy recovery, I tried treating Mabel with an antianxiety medication.
A week later, Mabel had improved markedly. Then, out of the blue, she had a meltdown day. I switched to another antianxiety medication and, once again, she seemed much better, though she still occasionally scanned the room for flies.
On the down side, Mabel’s owners felt that she was depressed. She spent more time inside the house than she used to, refusing to go out during peak fly times of the day. By the end of August, with the fly season winding down, Mabel was much better and I was able to taper off the medication.
The following spring, things began to unravel again. Mabel became much more nervous in April, as if anticipating the coming plague. By June she was not willing to go out of the house at all. At this point, her fear extended to all flying insects, including mosquitoes and moths. The situation had gone from bad to worse.
I again started her on the antianxiety medication, and this time added a long-acting beta-blocker to blunt the effects of norepinephrine, a brain-stress chemical that would be fueling her fear. The combination worked brilliantly, which was good, because her owners found her affliction so distressing that they had been considering euthanasia.
My own sister, Angela, had an insect phobia as a youngster and well into her teens. She was absolutely terrified of yellow jackets, having once been stung by one. The actual presence of a yellow jacket in Angela’s same airspace triggered what looked like a panic attack. She became absolutely hysterical, screaming, crying, running away, hiding behind one of our parents or leaving the room. The very mention of the word “wasp,” as we called them in our home of England, caused Angela to hyperventilate. So intense was her fear that even black-and-yellow sweaters would cause her to tremble.
When our family vacationed on the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, on the east coast of Britain, we had rented a large six-berth cruiser to explore the extensive inland collection of connected rivers, canals, and large lakes of the Norfolk Broads. We sat in the galley eating breakfast when a yellow jacket suddenly appeared above the table.
My sister started to panic. Using his most authoritative voice, my father said, “Angela, there is no need to panic. Sit absolutely still and he will not hurt you at all.”
Terrified, her pupils dilated in one of the human body’s physical expressions of fear, Angela sat there sobbing. The yellow jacket circled around and eventually came to land on her arm. She froze. Then it stung her. She screamed in pain and became even more hysterical. Unfortunately, her yellow-jacket phobia was reinforced for another ten years or so. Thanks a lot, Dad!
Angela did not have the benefit of medication to expedite her recovery, but she and Mabel had a lot in common. They had a specific phobia. Specific phobias—a catchall rubric for a constellation of afflictions—have close parallels in people and animals. Natural fears are provoked by triggers such as spiders, snakes, mice. People can develop excessive, irrational fears—phobias—regarding situations, like riding in elevators or flying. Mabel’s and my sister’s phobias would fall into the “animal-type” of specific phobia, a fear triggered by animals, including insects.
I’ve also encountered agoraphobia in pets, as mentioned earlier when discussing separation anxiety, as well as natural environmental-specific phobias, another subclass, which are cued by events that occur in nature such as storms, heights, or water.
The prototypical natural environment phobia in dogs is weather phobia, sometimes referred to as thunderstorm phobia. Genetic factors may cause certain breeds of dogs to be more susceptible to developing storm phobia, with herding breeds overrepresented in the demographics. Little dogs, such as terriers and those in the toy breed group, are affected much less frequently.
In humans, too, genetics plays a role in the development of phobias. This has been evidenced in identical twin studies. Identical human twins raised separately can have identical phobias, such as fear of heights.
An associate who once worked with me was terrified driving over bridges. She would lean into the center of the car for fear of falling off the side. Apparently, her mother had an identical phobia. Of course, she could have learned this fear from her mother, but genetics may also have played a role.
Genetics aside, a key factor in the development of thunderstorm phobia in dogs may be nurture, in the form of a lack of acclimation to noise cues during critical periods of development. If a sensitive pup with a nervous predisposition were exposed to a terrifying thunderstorm during a critical period of development, and especially if the puppy was with a person who also reacted with terror at such turbulent weather, that pup might learn to dread thunderstorms from that point on.
The truth is that no one really knows what triggers storm phobia in susceptible dogs. Some behaviorists have suggested that poor hearing is a factor, and that the abrupt sound of the storm surprises and frightens them. Other theorists posited supersensitive hearing, and that the sound of thunder is almost painful to dogs. Neither of these contradictory explanations seems to hold water.
Whatever the cause of thunderstorm phobia, the dog’s reactions show them to be terrified. Some seek out the comforting presence of their owner for support, clinging until the storm passes. Others hide under something or behind something, trying to escape. In extreme cases, when owners are not around, storm-phobic dogs will make desperate attempts to escape from their confines, breaking through screened or glass windows—anything to escape. In their panic they seem to be attempting the impossible, to outdistance the thunderstorm. Some dogs have run miles away from home.
Some dogs aren’t merely triggered by thunder and lightning. By association, they may become terrified by darkening skies, high winds, heavy rainfall, and other elements of the storm. So the term thunderstorm phobia has been dropped in favor of the simpler storm phobia. Some researchers believe that falling barometric pressure or changes in the static electric field may be triggers. Ground vibrations or ozone in the air may also forewarn some storm-phobic dogs of approaching storms, making them nervous. Certainly dogs seem to be able to pick up on storms well before their owners can, sometimes when there is not a cloud in the sky.
I am in favor of the static electricity theory myself. Behavioral studies have determined that 50 percent of storm-phobic dogs find refuge under a sink or in a bathtub. Sinks and bathtubs act as electrical grounds, preventing the buildup of static electricity on the dog’s coat. Dogs who get storm phobia are typically large dogs with thick pads and long woolly or thick or double coats, the animals most eligible for accumulating static charge.
If their bodies are not electrically grounded, pets can get static shocks during storms. This adds insult to injury—a painful zinger to an already dreadful situation. That would explain not only why they take refuge under sinks and in bathtubs, but also why the dogs with mild storm fear suddenly develop more severe reactions in midlife. They’ve probably been shocked by static electricity, and the effect was enough to push them over the edge into a full-blown phobia.
Some storm-phobic dogs also become generally sound phobic, frightened of sonic booms made by high-flying aircraft, quarry blasting, or even the sound of rumbling trucks. Others do not develop such ancillary fears. In fact, storm phobia and noise phobia are often distinct entities.
Many storm-phobic dogs are generally fearful and have other fear-related conditions, too. Quite often we see storm-phobic dogs who also have separation anxiety. In fact, at times storm phobia can be misdiagnosed as separation anxiety. A storm-phobic dog may indeed destroy property in his attempt to escape when his owner is away, a classic sign of separation anxiety. But the dog does so only occasionally, and only when the weather is extreme, which means he’s more likely got a storm phobia. Dogs with separation anxiety panic and act out every time their owners leave.
Because the general weather patterns during storms are so multidimensional, desensitization to storm phobia is very difficult, bordering on impossible. If you own a storm-phobic dog, we usually recommend you set up a windowless or curtained safe place in the house for the dog to go when storms are predicted. Ideally, that would be a basement in which exposure to the sight and sounds of storms is limited. Think of the safe place as similar to a tornado bunker for families living in tornado alley. It’s a great place to get out of harm’s way.
Of course, you have to train the dog to go to the safe place when a storm is imminent. You should in fact accompany your dog down to this well-appointed location, demonstrating its safety. Equip the safe place with food, water, a crate with its door left open, toys, and food treats. When your dog goes into the safe place, you should give him a lot of positive attention and praise, and repeat this training over time, so the dog learns to take himself off to the safe place.
At Tufts, we also advise that you use white noise in the safe place to mask any distant rumblings of thunder. Also, you might keep the lights on. Bright-white lights can conceal any traces of lightning flashes that the dog might notice if the windows aren’t completely shielded.
Various capes or wraps such as the Storm Defender and Anxiety Wrap have also proven to be helpful. The Storm Defender, with its flexible metallic-type lining, is principally an antistatic jacket. But its Velcro straps can be applied snuggly to produce a squeeze-machine-like effect. In a study we conducted with this jacket, we found the Storm Defender effective in reducing signs of thunderstorm phobia by 70 percent. The Anxiety Wrap, which works by exerting controlled pressure on the dog’s torso, was slightly less effective, but also produced a useful degree of improvement.
Some scientists believe that any improvement dogs show with thunder vests and T-shirts is due to the placebo effect. You might think that a placebo effect wouldn’t work with animals, since they are not susceptible to suggestion. But it’s not the animal who thinks it should work, it’s the owner! If you tell owners that a pressure vest may calm their dog, around 30–40 percent will report that precise result.
Firework phobia is similar to storm phobia in some respects, but it is much easier to treat. Fireworks only have two predictable components, what the dog can see and what the dog can hear. Preventing a firework-phobic dog from seeing massive starbursts in the sky is relatively straightforward. You simply shelter him indoors in a shuttered room.
Dealing with the constant crackles and booms is not quite so simple. That’s where desensitization comes in. Desensitization to the sounds of fireworks is eminently possible. You can play recordings of fireworks sounds, starting at low volumes and then increasing the level. At intervals, and as long as your dog remains calm, you reward her with praise and food treats. In time, your dog will learn that a fireworks boom in the background means that a freeze-dried liver treat is imminent.
Desensitization is a common treatment of specific phobias in people as well as dogs. Therapists reintroduce the trigger stimulus slowly, in increasing levels of intensity, until the desired level of tolerance is reached. Desensitization is usually coupled with counterconditioning, in which a person learns to associate the formerly phobic stimulus with more positive outcomes. Judging from the results we’ve seen with storm-phobic dogs, some kind of pressure vest could be helpful in the treatment of human phobias, too.
Another subclass of specific phobia in humans is the blood/injection/injury type. Fear of needles is common in children and holds on through adulthood with many people. Pets, cats especially, can develop injection-type phobias after a few visits to the veterinary clinic. A particularly painful blood draw or injection from a veterinarian might cue the animal to develop a white-coat phobia.
The good news here is that this phobia does not typically occur with any great frequency. It can be suppressed using situational antianxiety drugs and careful handling.
When still quite young, my daughter Keisha became terrified of needles after an inept nurse made a traumatic attempt to locate a vein. After that incident, she felt the hallmarks of panic every time she needed an injection. Her chest heaved, she felt faint and became certain she would pass out. Because some vaccinations are legally mandated and others are just plain necessary, she steeled her way through this situation, much to her credit. After many years of needle phobia, she has finally pretty much managed to overcome her formerly debilitating condition.
Another subtype of specific phobia is the so-called “situational type.” In humans, as alluded to before, this might involve a fear of flying or a phobia connected to tunnels, bridges, elevators, public transportation, driving, or enclosed spaces. Extreme fears of this nature also occur in dogs and cats. Car travel might be a trigger for the afflicted pet, or being shut in a confined space, such as a crate or carrier. Desensitization and giving the cat or dog treats in the crate may lessen this fear in time.
The final subtype of specific phobia is mundanely termed “other type.” Just as some children develop phobias to specific loud sounds or to costumed characters, so, too, can pets. By costumed characters, we really mean clowns. The latter condition even has its own name, coulrophobia. Many dogs are not comfortable in the presence of a person dressed in clown gear. And certainly many dogs are phobic of certain people who are in some way different in terms of the way they dress, physical appearance, affect, or gait. Halloween is not their favorite time!
Agoraphobia is a more complex phobia, defined as “fear of experiencing a panic attack in a place or situation from which escape may be difficult and where help is not available.” For people, agoraphobia is frequently associated with panic disorder. Indeed, it is sometimes defined as a subset of panic disorder. In severe cases, people become unable to leave their homes or safe havens. They are afraid of open spaces or, more basically, of being outside.
One of the most shocking and memorable cases of agoraphobia that I came across in animals involved a cow. Cassie, an otherwise healthy-looking 1,500-pound black-and-white Friesian, was confined to a roomy, well-bedded stall in an animal sanctuary in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. I was called in because Cassie would never leave her stall. In fact, she could not be induced to take a single step outside her stall, even when tempted with her favorite treat, bread. This poor cow was frightened of her natural environment!
Looking into the Cassie’s history, I realized why she had developed this incredible phobia. A few months before, Cassie found herself at a slaughterhouse in Hopkinton, minutes away from meeting her maker. As the doomed beasts intended for slaughter mooed and bellowed their way up a ramp to their execution, Cassie rebelled. Clearly, she did not feel ready to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Instead, exhibiting the strength of ten cows, Cassie somehow clambered over a six-foot-high barrier, bursting out of the slaughterhouse with the power and agility of a puissance horse, to find herself in the main street of pleasant little Hopkinton, cars and trucks whizzing by her. The brave cow continued to flee, galloping down the main street of Hopkinton as if to start the Boston Marathon.
The escaped beast was eventually cornered by the authorities and loaded into a stock truck. The animal control officers had a tough decision to make. Would they give Cassie a reprieve or take her back to the slaughterhouse? The case of Cassie, the cow who did not want to die, became something of a local cause célèbre. Something about Cassie’s desperate escape to freedom plucked at the heartstrings of the public.
That’s when the good folk at Maple Farm Sanctuary stepped up and said, “We’ll take her.” Maple Farm Sanctuary’s decision was very popular. The reprieved cow quickly adapted to her new home. In the sanctuary of her stall, she was safe, comfortable, and well fed. She did not want to face the horrors and panic of the outside world again. There are slaughterhouses out there! So Cassie simply stayed put.
My job was to coax her out. Her new keepers wanted her to taste the joys of freedom and experience the wonderful meadows that lay behind the barn. I’m afraid the treatment I suggested was not supersuccessful. It did help a bit. I had her eating bread, her favorite ration, and taking several paces away from the stall to obtain successive mouthfuls. This worked quite well, especially when facilitated by a mild tranquilizer. Attempts to move her farther than a few paces met with rigid resistance, with the stubborn cow channeling her inner mule. Eventually, the sanctuary owners decided that if that is the way Cassie preferred it, she could live out her days in the stall.
I have seen some pitiful specimens of dogs suffering from agoraphobia. Many have come from abusive situations and their behavior resembles Cassie’s—they prefer the safety of their enclosures to any freedom their new owners might offer.
Canine agoraphobia often involves balking. By balking, I mean refusing to venture out onto city streets. This affliction is most common in urban pets, just as agoraphobic mental disorders are most frequently seen in urban-based humans. The unnatural city environment—the concrete jungle, so to speak—seems to present problems all around. The balking dogs I have seen have all come from Boston or New York City.
Another agoraphobia case I saw involved a horse that was boarded at a barn a bit north of our veterinary school in central Massachusetts. One winter’s day, as the horse was being led from its stall to an outdoor paddock, a massive sheet of frozen snow rumbled across the roof and fell to the ground below, smashing noisily into a thousand different pieces.
The horse spooked and abruptly reared up, but was then controlled by his handler and led on to its paddock. The problem came later, when the horse balked at returning to its stall. For weeks, he remained in the lower paddock, refusing to be led back to the barn, showing signs of panic that intensified as he got closer to the feared location.
Although an argument could be made that this horse was expressing a specific phobia, the case also met some of the criteria for agoraphobia. The animal perceived returning to the stall environment as threatening, panic-inducing, and difficult to escape from. Diagnosis can be a moot proposition to a suffering animal. The horse was in the grip of a phobia, and whichever one was irrelevant to the animal. The treatment involved gradually reintroducing the horse to the barn, facilitated by the use of the antianxiety medication buspirone.
Treatment of agoraphobia can be very difficult and not guaranteed to work, whether with cows, dogs, or people. For people, cognitive behavioral approaches, like exposure treatment and relaxation techniques, can limit symptoms of anxiety and panic, but most often pharmaceutical treatments are needed as well. Agoraphobia comprises about 60 percent of all phobias and is such a stubborn problem that it is sometimes classed as a medical, rather than a psychological, condition. It is one of the few anxiety-based conditions that’s so severe it receives specific medical labeling.
Although I have not actually crunched the numbers, my suspicion is that “specific phobias” would be more common than agoraphobia in nonhuman animals. They certainly occur frequently, and they can be seriously debilitating and highly distressing for both the animal and the owner. Persistence in calm, kind desensitization combined with antianxiety medications can sometimes help the phobic pet, but treatment is a challenge for creatures great and small.