For Satchmo, a rescued Greyhound, the change in Georgia’s fireworks law in 2015 was the last straw.
A 4-year-old at the time, Satchmo had long exhibited noise phobia, not uncommon in dogs, but mostly resulting from thunder during storms, or from fireworks during celebrations for the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve. The State of Georgia, however, legalized the use of “consumer fireworks” on any day from 10 a.m. to 11:59 p.m.
“We could be just out walking, the fireworks would go off and Satchmo’s anxiety level would shoot sky high,” said Satchmo’s owner (or, in pet parlance, parent) Sharon Rosenfeld. “He no longer wanted to go for a walk. He got to a point that he was concerned fireworks would go off and he was always waiting for them.”
After some searching, a professional dog trainer gave the East Cobb family the name of one of only three board-certified veterinarian behaviorists in the state, and the only one in the metro Atlanta area.
Dr. Lynne Seibert said thunder, fireworks and gunshots are all problems for animals with noise phobia. “The prevalence of noisy celebrations is quite challenging,” says Seibert of Veterinary Behavior Consultants in Roswell.
“The Southeast is difficult for noise phobic dogs because there are so many pop-up storms. Noise phobia is pretty common in dogs. According to one study, 20 percent of dogs are affected. Another study gives a higher percentage.” Seibert said she heard of one case where a dog actually ate through drywall in a house during a thunderstorm.
Although Seibert sees dogs like Satchmo, most dogs brought to her have aggression issues. Some need help with house training and some with repetitive behaviors. With cats, she sees over-grooming, new cat introduction and failure to use litter boxes. She also helps pets become acclimated to babies in the house.
Being board-certified isn’t species specific, Seibert said. “We must learn about all species.” She mostly sees dogs, cats and birds, which were the focus of her research, but she also sees exotic small mammals and horses.
Seibert grew up with pets but didn’t always know that she wanted to be a veterinarian. She received her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Indiana University and her veterinary medicine degree from the University of Tennessee. She practiced general medicine and surgery before returning to graduate school, and a residency program.
“I was in general practice in the metropolitan New York area and felt that we were doing a terrible job with behavioral problems,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to help the animals, which was just unacceptable, so I went back to school.” She completed her master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology and animal behavior at the University of Georgia. She also completed a three-year clinical residency in behavior medicine at UGA, leading to board certification with the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. According to Seibert, there are only 86 board-certified behaviorists throughout the world.
Although any veterinarian can prescribe medicine for an animal’s anxiety, most don’t have much behavioral training, Seibert noted. “Most veterinarian colleges don’t even have a basic course in animal behavior.” She compared regular veterinarians to primary care physicians for humans, while animal behaviorists are the equivalent of psychiatrists.
Of course, animals can’t report if they feel better after treatment, but Seibert explained that she “tries to have some markers in mind for pet parents to gauge improvement.”
She recommends that an owner of a pet with some kind of behavioral problem start with their own veterinarian. “Any behavioral symptom could have an underlying medical condition,” she said. “If a dog is acting aggressively, it can be pain-related, so you should always start with a vet. They may decide it’s a training issue.”
Seibert’s experience with animals isn’t relegated to her work. She’s the owner of three dogs, six birds and two cats – all rescued – and a house pig “which is the only pet I got intentionally,” she said, laughing. “I love my pig.”
Still, her work keeps her pretty busy, six or seven days a week. She books appointments a month in advance. Compared to other veterinarian specialties, like surgery, “a behavior specialist is a bargain,” she added. “They charge less than some local trainers.”
Rosenfeld certainly feels it’s been a good investment taking her dog to Seibert, who tried a few different prescriptions on Satchmo before finding the right one to alleviate his noise phobia. “She didn’t over-medicate him, and the drugs didn’t change his personality. Now he’s no longer paralyzed and will go on walks. To me, it’s a big thing.”