In the April 2000 issue, we discussed a number of therapies that have brought relief to some thunder- and noise-phobic dogs, including homeopathy, flower essences, medicinal herbs, and aromatherapy. This article discusses even more therapies that can be helpful in reducing the symptoms of fear and panic that many dogs experience with loud noises or storms.
The melatonin miracle
As unlikely as it sounds, one of the most effective treatments for thunderstorm phobias may be an over-the-counter hormone used by humans to prevent insomnia. Melatonin, produced by the pineal gland, sets the body’s internal clock in response to exposure to light. The body creates melatonin only in total darkness, for the pineal gland stops production when any part of the body, even the back of the leg, is exposed to light. In people, melatonin has been shown to calm the nerves, reduce anxiety, relieve panic disorders, prevent migraine headaches, facilitate deep sleep, and, according to some researchers, help slow the effects of aging. In birds and other animals in the wild, melatonin levels trigger spring reproduction, fall migration, and winter hibernation.
In fact, hibernation is what brought melatonin to dogs with thunderstorm phobias. In the winter of 1995, a hyperactive black bear living at a wildlife rehabilitation center made life miserable for her keepers. Dr. Dodman, who runs the behavioral section at Tufts New England Veterinary Medical Center in Massachusetts, suggested giving the bear melatonin. “That decreased the bear’s activity,” says Dr. Aronson, “and she rested quite nicely.”
Aronson and Dodman found research papers describing the use of melatonin in other environments, such as large chicken farms, where it reduced the stress of overcrowding. “Someone had done research on flank licking in dogs,” says Aronson, “and melatonin reduced that as well. In human psychiatric medicine, melatonin has been used to treat seasonal affective disorder and jet lag in adults as well as depression and self-injurious behaviors in children. We had been looking for something that would help reduce canine thunderstorm phobias, and we wondered if melatonin might work.”
The first patient to receive the experimental therapy was Aronson’s own dog, a Bearded Collie then seven years old. “Lightning had hit very close to my house two years previously,” says Aronson, “and thunderstorms had frightened her ever since. We had tried other therapies, including some homeopathic remedies. Homeopathic Aconite seemed to help, but it didn’t solve the problem. So I tried melatonin, and the result was dramatic. Instead of tearing through the house, urinating, and digging at carpets with a wild look in her eye, she simply stopped being afraid. Melatonin isn’t a sedative. It didn’t put her to sleep; she stayed awake and alert. Thunder just didn’t bother her any more.”
Researchers reproduce positive results
Aronson and Dodman gave melatonin to other dogs and produced the same results. “It worked well for noises other than thunder,” Aronson says. “One dog was afraid of thunder but her major fear was of song birds, and it worked for both phobias. In another case, a woman took two dogs, one of which was extremely noise-phobic, and a bottle of melatonin on a Fourth of July agility match camping trip. Hers were the only dogs in the camp that weren’t severely stressed by the fireworks.”
Melatonin’s benefits may be cumulative. “The camping dogs were most relaxed on the third night,” Aronson says, “as though learning had taken place over the first two nights. After five years of treatment, my dog is less perturbed by thunder if she doesn’t get melatonin, but she is still far more comfortable when she does get it.”
Melatonin is sold in capsules and tablets in health food stores, pharmacies, and some supermarkets. At first marketed in doses of two to three milligrams (mg.), melatonin is now sold in doses as low as 200 micrograms (mcg.). For most dogs, Aronson prescribes 3 mg., which was the amount recommended for humans when she and Dodman began their research five years ago. “This dosage works very well for large dogs,” she says, “and we have seen no adverse side effects. In a few cases, very large dogs weighing well over a hundred pounds needed 6 mg., but that’s unusual. For dogs that weigh less than 30 pounds, we usually give 1.5 mg. We haven’t had any experience with tiny dogs, but if one did develop a noise phobia, we would reduce the dosage even further.”
To improve assimilation, pills can be crushed or capsules opened and their contents added to food. “It’s important to compare labels,” she adds, “because now that low-dose melatonin is widely sold, many owners seriously under-dose their dogs. They forget that there are 1,000 micrograms in a milligram. A 200-mcg. pill contains only 1/15 of the amount recommended for a large dog.”
Preparation is key
Whenever a thunderstorm is predicted, Aronson recommends giving the dog melatonin before the owner leaves for the day. The supplement remains effective for several hours. Otherwise, give it whenever thunder seems imminent. “If you notice the dog becoming agitated,” she says, “give melatonin immediately. I’ve had one report that it didn’t work on a dog that was already highly agitated before taking melatonin, so it may not be effective in a fully developed panic attack. Even then I think it is worth trying, as it may prevent the situation from getting worse.”
Do other stress reactions respond to melatonin? “We hoped it might cure separation anxiety,” says Aronson, “and when Nick Dodman and I tried it on a Great Dane with this condition, it worked for a while but then stopped working. I’ve also had good response from two dogs with lick granulomas. We have not found it to be effective in other stressful situations. It seems to be most effective when noise is a major factor.”
How melatonin works remains a mystery, but it has a profound effect on the central nervous system’s neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that transmit nerve impulses. “We know that melatonin increases serotonin production and that it is a major inhibitor of dopamine release,” says Aronson. “Dopamine and serotonin are the most important neurotransmitters involved in behavior. We tried other substances that enhance the production of serotonin, but they need three to four weeks to become effective, while melatonin works immediately. Maybe it has something to do with cortisol levels. We spend a lot of time speculating as to why and how melatonin works. In the meantime, people are happy because their dogs are calm.”
Are there any dogs that shouldn’t take melatonin? “They do say that you shouldn’t give it to humans with autoimmune disorders,” says Aronson, “but I have given it to dogs with autoimmune disease, and we haven’t seen any deleterious side effects. I’ve used it on very elderly dogs that had a number of diseases, dogs with heart problems, and dogs with other illnesses. Melatonin is not recommended for people taking corticosteroids or monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Some dogs with autoimmune disease are on steroids, and although melatonin therapy has worked well for them, they should be monitored carefully. I would probably lower the dose for a dog with a severe kidney or liver disease, but other than that I would give the standard dosage.” Physicians debate the long-term safety of melatonin supplementation, and many holistic health experts caution against taking melatonin for more than occasional, short-term use. Reports of its actions in dogs remain anecdotal, for no clinical trials have been conducted.
Over-the-counter melatonin is not recommended for children because any hormone supplement may disrupt the developing endocrine system. “Some people say it shouldn’t be given to puppies for the same reason,” says Aronson, “but if I were treating a very young dog or puppy for nose phobia, I would use it. You have to compare the risks, and when you measure the risk of a recurring thunderstorm phobia, you have to include the possibility that your dog will run away, be seriously injured, wreck your house, or suffer the cumulative effects of repeated psychological trauma. In that context, I think the risk posed by melatonin is relatively insignificant.”
Spreading the word
In addition to recommending melatonin in her behavioral practice, Aronson shared the news with fellow Bearded Collie owners. “We have received detailed reports on about a hundred dogs,” she says, “and so far everyone says that it’s working.”
It didn’t take long for stories about melatonin to spread across the country. One dog breeder who wasted no time to test the therapy was Judy Johnstone, who came into possession of an extremely thunder-phobic nine-year-old dog. During a thunderstorm the dog had escaped from her former owner’s apartment, jumped over a fence, and was found wandering near I-70 in downtown Denver.
“When the dog then came to live with me here in Michigan,” says Johnstone, “she was extremely fearful of loud noises, so as soon as I read the recommendation, which was from a trainer I respected, I was eager to try melatonin. Twenty minutes before the next thunderstorm arrived, I gave her one 3-mg. capsule, and she slept through the storm. Then I tried it on my two older dogs, the ones who became thunder-phobic when our house was hit by lightning.”
Johnstone personally knows 10 dogs, including her own three, whose thunderstorm phobia responded well to melatonin. One belongs to a friend who occasionally boards her dogs with Johnstone. “This dog,” she says, “had trashed just about every crate that I own while trying to escape from thunder. She was finally put on a veterinary tranquilizer that immobilized her so that even though she was still frightened, she couldn’t do anything about it. Like all the other dogs I know, she responded immediately to melatonin, and she’s been calm during storms ever since.”
Dr. Aronson continues to collect case studies for a report to the veterinary community. If you’d like participate in her melatonin research project, see “More Resources” below. Send a brief description of the dog (breed, sex, spayed/neutered, age, and weight), type of phobia (thunderstorms, fireworks, gunshot noise, airplanes, etc.), behavior triggered by the phobia, age at which the phobia began, event that triggered the phobia (if known), treatments that were tried prior to melatonin, melatonin dosage used, its effectiveness or ineffectiveness under different conditions (please describe), and your name, address, phone number, or e-mail address. “I would like to hear about dogs for whom melatonin doesn’t work,” says Aronson, “as well as success stories.”
TTouch for any stressor
One therapy that has helped dogs permanently overcome their fear of thunder and many other things is Tellington TTouch, the system of gentle circular massage motions developed by Linda Tellington-Jones. In the May 1999 issue of WDJ, certified TTouch practitioner Sabra Learned described a Great Dane who was so terrified of thunder that she pulled the sofa away from the wall in order to hide behind it whenever a storm hit, damaging both sofa and wall in the process. The dog had one session of TTouch, conducted when there was no thunder, and during the next storm she was found lying on (not behind) the sofa, fast asleep.
Because they move muscles in ways that are not already familiar to the body, the gentle manipulations of TTouch are said to disrupt habitual neural pathways, awaken previously unused brain cells, and create profound changes at the cellular level which generate new responses to familiar stimuli.
As exotic as this theory sounds, it is utilized by therapists who help people recover from terrifying traumas. In rapid eye movement desensitization, the patient thinks about an upsetting event while the therapist moves a hand or object back and forth, causing the patient’s eyes to move rapidly. In a popular phobia treatment, the patient taps different parts of the body, such as the top of one hand or under the eyes, while thinking about or looking at whatever normally triggers panic. In another, the patient mentally reconstructs traumatic events from a different perspective, such as from a distance or while looking down from the sky. What these unusual treatments have in common is that they often eliminate a phobia within minutes, so that someone who was terrified of elevators or airplanes now rides in them without a second thought.
Tellington TTouch is thought to do the same thing in dogs, so that the stimulus (thunder, loud noises) no longer produces the same effect (anxiety, panic). Sabra Learned’s WDJ article (May 1999) demonstrated ear slides and body wraps, both of which decrease anxiety and help prevent thunder phobias. In her book The Tellington TTouch, Linda Tellington-Jones recommends tail work as well, for using a gentle pull/hold/release movement while drawing circles around the base, underside, and top of the tail seems to release fear, especially in dogs that tuck the tail when frightened.
“We have found that altering the way the animal holds the tail changes his or her response to fearful situations,” Tellington-Jones explains. “For example, we have had impressive positive results in innumerable cases when we have used the tail work to alleviate such problems as fear of loud noises (backfire or thunder), fear-biting, aggression, or timidity.”
Another technique that improves these same conditions is a TTouch exercise called Journey of the Homing Pigeon, in which two handlers stand on opposite sides of the dog, each with a leash attached to the collar and holding a long wand. The handlers take turns stroking the dog’s chest with the wand, moving forward while holding the wand as a target stick in front of the dog’s nose, then stopping and stroking the chest again. No sharp commands are used, only soft intonations.
In addition, the focus and concentration required in exercises that use long sticks or six-foot lengths of three-inch plastic plumbing pipe help calm thunder-phobic dogs. To create a simple obstacle course for your dog, lay several sticks or pipes across each other in a random arrangement, like pickup sticks, and slowly walk your dog through them. “He has to stop and think rather than rush,” says Tellington-Jones. “He is not able to sit down between them but rather must use his mind quietly to figure out how to get through.”
Another exercise, the labyrinth, involves slow walking in a simple maze pattern. Both require the animal to think and move in unfamiliar ways. “Working within the boundaries of the labyrinth seems to calm and focus dogs as well as horses,” she observes, “and animals that have a tendency to be hyperactive quiet almost immediately.”
The tiny circles that are the foundation of TTouch may reduce the effects of “tingle voltage” in dogs on days when thunder is predicted. As Tellington-Jones reports in her book, a Toronto farmer wrote that he successfully adapted TTouch to relieve the symptoms of electrical buildup in his dairy cattle by making small circles over their teats and udders at milking time. Instead of remaining paralyzed and unable to let down their milk, the cattle were ready for milking within five minutes. Making large and small circles from head to tail and from the spine down the legs to the floor may interrupt the charge-and-recharge cycle of stray electrical currents in dogs as well. For information about Tellington TTouch books and videos or referral to a TTouch instructor, see the “More Resources” box.
Another physical therapy that produces long-lasting changes in health and behavior is acupressure, the application of gentle to firm finger pressure to the acupuncture points of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In dogs, humans, and other animals, acupressure points map the flow of Chi or life force energy. Blocked Chi interferes with health, but both acupuncture and acupressure correct imbalances in its flow, releasing energy blocks and restoring the body’s ability to heal.
Few people know more about the meridians (energy pathways) of dogs, cats, and horses than Nancy Zidonis. A founding board member of the International Alliance of Animal Therapy and Healing, Zidonis has co-authored three acupressure textbooks and developed canine, equine, and feline meridian charts. Her latest book, The Well-Connected Dog: A Guide to Canine Acupressure, co-written with Amy Snow, features detailed illustrations, photographs, and instructions for performing acupressure on dogs of every description.
Because the terminology, theory, classifications, and procedures of TCM are new to most Americans, long lists of acupressure points (called acupoints) and maps of a dog’s body dotted with abbreviations like Lu 1 (traditionally known as Central Resistance, an alarm point for the lung) and Ht 9 (Lesser Yin Rushing, a tonification point for the heart meridian) can seem overwhelming.
“That’s because they are unfamiliar,” says Snow. “Acupressure is really easy to learn; it just takes practice. Most dogs learn to love the treatment, and in addition to helping them feel better, it strengthens the bonds of affection and communication between dogs and their people.”
Help for a scared service dog
A Golden Retriever named Stella had recently graduated from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) when lightning struck a rock outside her Colorado home. Her partner called the dog as she rolled her wheelchair into the house, but Stella frozen with fear and was unable to move for several minutes. For the next year, she cowered and shook whenever she heard thunder, fire engines, or Fourth of July fireworks. “As a CCI graduate, Stella must be highly reliable and able to perform whatever tasks her human requires,” says Snow. “Her inability to function when any loud noise occurred was a very serious problem.”
Snow and Zidonis met Stella at a CCI training session held at an amusement park. “She arrived in fine form,” says Snow, “wagging happily and greeting people when released to do so. Suddenly a train went by and Stella’s whole demeanor changed.”
Zidonis and Snow often combine acupuncture with other therapies, such as homeopathy, calming herbs, or essential oils. “We suggested that Stella take a homeopathic calming remedy and receive one acupressure treatment daily,” says Snow. “After two weeks, she was less distracted by loud noises, but a working Service Dog must be totally reliable, and Stella’s behavior still could not be trusted. We continued the acupressure treatments every three days for two more weeks, including point work for calming, fear reduction, and mental focus.”
The therapy worked. Now three years old and no longer frightened by loud noises, Stella performs her Service Dog duties with pride.
Good for fearful dogs
Seven-month-old Sheba, a gangly dark red Irish Setter, was so afraid of noise that even a loud voice would send her racing for the bath tub, where she would lie as flat as her angular body allowed. “Setters are known to be excitable,” says Zidonis, “but this was an unusually stressed and fearful puppy. We started her acupressure by focusing on calming points, and her caregivers performed maintenance sessions between the weekly treatments we administered.”
Within two weeks, Sheba’s behavior changed. During a thunderstorm she walked into the bathroom but did not hide in the tub. “She continued to relax,” says Zidonis, “even when people raised their voices or a truck went by. After two months of treatment, Sheba could tolerate thunder and other loud noises without running for cover, and she gained a lot of self-confidence.”
Zidonis and Snow offer the following five-minute first-aid treatment for thunder-phobic dogs – or any dog in a stressful situation. Their book, The Well-Connected Dog, contains detailed treatment plans for all types of canine conditions.
“The most important thing to do before beginning an acupressure treatment,” says Zidonis, “is relax. You want to convey a sense of calm and reassurance to your dog. You also want the dog’s cooperation and permission, so take a moment to stroke your dog and communicate. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take your time.”
Easy to experiment
Anyone can experiment with acupressure; it is relaxing for any dog. Start with the Yin-Tang point, located on the Governing Vessel meridian. Yin Tang is located in the center of the head at the base of the nose between the eyes.
“This is a powerful calming point,” explains Snow. “Work it by applying gentle but consistent pressure with your thumb. Slowly exhale as you press into the point, and inhale as you release out of it. Apply light pressure at first, then gently increase the amount of pressure as your dog permits. Keep both hands on your dog while giving the treatment. One hand does the point work, while the other feels reactions, such as twitches or muscle spasms and their release. Your free hand also soothes your dog and acts as an energy connection.”
Snow recommends working this point for 15-30 seconds, or until you feel your dog begin to calm and relax. Then move on to the next point. “Feel free to stroke your dog at any time during the acupressure session. This will help reinforce a feeling of calm and aid your dog’s comfort,” says Snow.
There are two Bladder Meridians, one on each side of and very close to the spine. Each begins at the inside corner of the eye and flows over the top of the head, then down the neck to the shoulders, where it splits into two branches. Bladder Point 10 (Bl 10) is just behind the ear at the top of the neck; there is one just to the right of the spine and one just to the left. Bladder Point 15 (Bl 15) is in the muscle depression just behind the shoulder blade and about two finger widths from the top of the spine; again, there is one on either side of the spine. These four points have a calming effect and stimulate mental focus.
“To protect your thumbs and wrists and ensure smooth motion, use your body weight and lean gently into your dog,” suggests Zidonis. “Of course, you will use very gentle pressure on a Yorkie or Toy Poodle, but large breeds typically require one-half to three pounds of pressure. You can apply direct pressure without moving your thumb, or slowly pulsate your thumb, or alternate direct pressure with small counterclockwise circles on each acupoint.” Slow pulsation and counterclockwise motion have a calming effect. The Heart Meridian runs from the chest down the middle of the inner front leg to the elbow and the inside of the foreleg, crossing behind the wrist and continuing down the outside of the foreleg. Heart point 7 (He 7) is at the wrist joint on the back or outside of the wrist just beneath the depression formed between wrist bone and tendon. This calming point is so powerful that it helps relieve epileptic conditions.
Next to the Heart Meridian is the Pericardium Meridian. Pericardium point 6 (Pe 6), just above the wrist on the inside of the front leg, and Pericardium 7 (Pe7), directly on the wrist joint on the inside of the leg, are powerful anxiety reducers and calming points. If you activate the entire wrist “bracelet,” just above and directly on the wrist joint on the inner forearm and just below it on the outer forearm, you will activate both Pericardium points and He 7, described above.
Last, Governing Vessel 11 is on the top of the spine between the shoulder blades. “There are several Governing Vessel points close together in this area,” says Zidonis. “Apply gentle pressure on the vertebrae between the shoulder blades and you will find GV 11.” GV 11 is at about the fifth thoracic vertebra or fifth rib, counting from the base of the neck toward the tail.
There is far more to canine acupressure than this brief description provides, but for those who need help now, this five-minute treatment can help a dog say good-bye to panic and hysteria.
In human health circles, some researchers are finding that combining acupuncture with the topical application of therapeutic-quality essential oils produces more dramatic results than either therapy by itself. In the treatment of thunderstorm phobia and other anxieties, you may obtain faster and more lasting results by administering flower essences, essential oil blends, hydrosols, or herbal tinctures before and during the acupressure treatment.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Is Your Dog Afraid of Thunder”
-By CJ Puotinen
Author CJ Puotinen is an herbalist, holistic pet care expert, the author of Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, and a frequent contributor to WDJ.