Monday, June 20, 2016

When The Sky Goes Boom

Eddie sat beside Mr. Parker and looked at me expectantly. Expectantly because I had already give him three of his favorite liver treats. 'If three, why not four, or even fourteen?' he seemed to be thinking. Regardless, he did not look especially nervous or anxious today.  However, two days prior this 30 kilo lab border collie cross put a dog shaped hole in the Parkers' kitchen screen door. Then he ran flat out for at least four kilometers, through the hammering rain and deepening mud. The Parkers found him several hours later, limping down a grid road, panting, bedraggled, exhausted. They brought him in to get him checked over because he still had a bit of a limp and because they didn't want this to happen again. Eddie had a storm phobia and it was the start of the summer storm season.

Many dogs have storm phobias and noise phobias. These are actually two different things, although there is considerable overlap. About 90% of storm phobia dogs also have a noise phobia to sudden loud sounds such as fireworks and cars backfiring. Curiously, the reverse is only true 75% of the time (noise phobia dogs who also have a storm phobia). Many also have other anxieties such as separation anxiety, but certainly a large number, like Eddie, do not. There is evidence that storm phobic dogs may also be reacting to the change in atmospheric pressure and to the flashing light in addition to the noise of the thunder. It is well known that dogs can hear the thunder approaching long before we do. This is a key part of the problem as many anxieties are worse when there is a wind up anticipatory phase.

I talked to Mr. Parker about three types of solutions: training, tricks and drugs. Most of the time you have to use at least two out of the three. Eddie needed all three.

Training is the best long term solution if you can get it to work. The chances of success are higher if you can consistently put the time needed into it. That said, I don't judge people who are unable to. My own dog still chases cars, steals entire cakes and barks at the vacuum like its the anti-Christ. There are a few training approaches, but the one I like best is counter-conditioning. For this find a long thunder storm sound clip. Start to play it very quietly and briefly while feeding your dog treats or his meal. Keep it below the level that sparks anxiety. Over time gradually increase the volume and duration, but always backing off immediately if he shows any signs of being worried. You are trying to create a deep association between a temporary bad thing, storms, and a permanent good thing, food. For most dogs the goodness of food will overpower the badness of storms, just so long as you take an extremely careful and gradual approach. This is best done well before storm season.

The tricks are fun. Get out you credit card and start surfing:
There are Mutt Muffs to block sound:
There are ThunderHuts, also to block sound:
There are Doggles in case the lightning flashes are part of the problem:
And there are ThunderShirts, to calm by creating a secure feeling "hug":

Of these I have only seen the latter in action. My observation has been that the ThunderShirt seems to help many dogs, but that's it's unusual for it to be the sole answer. Looks cool though. Especially when matched with doggles and mutt muffs. A cheap DYI solution is to let the dog tell you what reduces the noise and flashes for him. This means leaving all your (inside!) doors open and letting him find a bed to crawl under or closet to stuff himself into.

And then finally the drugs. Some clients glaze over for all the above and radiate a strong "just give me the drugs" vibe. There are several but none are perfect and all require you to be very watchful of the weather forecast as they won't work once the anxiety is already building up. It is good to have some medication on hand for when you know that a storm is predicted later in the day. Most drugs are given an hour or so before the expected onset of anxiety. In severe cases it may even be worth having anti-anxiety meds prescribed to be given on a daily basis right through the storm season. Regardless, talk to your veterinarian as there is definitely no "one size fits all answer".

Ultimately some counter-conditioning, a ThunderShirt and an alprazolam prescription were the ticket for Eddie. He had a great summer until they went camping in an aluminum trailer and were caught in a hail storm...

Monday, June 6, 2016

An Open Letter To The Client In The Park Whose Name I Forgot

Dear Client,

It will come to me. Just give me a little longer and it will come to me. But in the meantime I do apologize. It was clearly awkward for both of us. You saying a friendly and hearty "Hi Dr. Schott!" and me an, I hope, equally friendly but unfortunately slightly less hearty "Hi.....!".

I recognized you for sure. I just couldn't remember your name. Or that of your pet. Or pets. Or their species. Or whether they were still alive. So I had to substitute "How's insert name of pet(s) here doing?" with "How are you?", which is ok, but not as good. I wish you had your dog(s) with you. That would have helped jog my memory. Should that have been a clue? Maybe you don't have dogs?

But the awkward bit was when it was obvious after you stopped to chat that I should introduce my family. This is when I could tell from your face that you realized I didn't remember your name. You're a kind and understanding person so you weren't hurt or disappointed, rather you felt bad that you put me in the position of having to try to remember. And I felt bad that you felt bad on top of the feeling bad that I couldn't remember. And now you probably feel bad that I felt bad that.... Never mind.

So here's the thing. I'm sure that you are smart in addition to being kind and understanding, so you know this already, but it still bears explaining. The thing is that you have a box in your brain marked "veterinarian" and another marked "dentist" and another marked "piano teacher" and so on. Each of these boxes contains one, or perhaps at most a handful, of names and faces. Pretty straight-forward to connect those names and faces. I have a box in my brain marked "clients". It contains upwards of 6,000 names and faces.  I have a decent memory, but... Well, you get it.

What you might not get though is that you don't even necessarily want to be one of the names I can connect to faces. Just like with a newspaper where far more bad news gets printed than good, far more names connect to faces when they are associated with something bad. It's just more memorable.

So, if I do remember your name it often means one of two things:
(a) You are one of those wacky clients staff talk about all the time.
(b) Your pets are way too sick way too often.

In other words, you should feel really good that I didn't remember your name. But give me a bit more time and I will remember. It's on the tip of my tongue. Just like when you're trying to remember that actor who was in that movie with what's-her-name who use to be married to what's-his-name in that other movie, you know? Right? Yes, that one.

Once again, my apologies.


Dr. Philipp Schott BSc DVM