As we jump feet first into Spring, it is easy to get excited about the great things to come. Grilling outdoors, flowers in bloom, sunshine for days, etc. Unfortunately while some of us may revel in the winds and showers that April brings, some of our furry counterparts are less than thrilled for the exciting weather developments that accompany the start of Spring. If you are the owner of a pet with a “storm phobia” you are not alone.
It’s a condition we deal with frequently as veterinarians, and sometimes as pet owners ourselves. Just like a systemic illness each pet with a storm phobia is different. The manifestations and coping mechanisms for each pet’s phobia will vary. Some cases may be minor, resulting in some restlessness or panting, while other pets end up costing owners large sums of money in home repair as their dog attempts to tunnel through dry-wall or destroy furniture. Although we may not be able to eradicate the signs of unease in their entirety, it is important to address these behaviors and lessen their severity (as much for your sanity as your pet’s).
Causes and Triggers
Dogs react to a variety of things associated with storms, and it helps to be aware of what these are for your pet. You may never know them all, but at least a general understanding will help you understand the extent of this fear and proactively address the problem.
Loud noises are scary to some dogs, be it the vacuum, an alerting smoke detector, fireworks, etc. Remember that your dog can hear noises at a much greater distance than humans can, as well as hearing the noise on a different frequency. Therefore, a dog has early audio warning of an approaching storm, and most storm-phobic dogs eventually start reacting long before the sounds are loud.
Electricity in the air as well as barometric pressure may be major players in inducing storm phobia. For those dogs that have been trained on an electronic collar, this can be confusing and equally more terrifying. Pressure in the air changes as various “fronts” pass through (think about how much your knees and back ache when the temperature drops) and our pets seem to be much more sensitive to those pressure changes; yet another reason our pets display erratic behavior hours before the storm is overhead.
Our pets are typically very aware of “routine” and any change in normal routine may trigger anxiety in your pet. Be aware that as you take precautionary measures around your home to prepare for an approaching storm your pet may see this as a sign of fearful things to come. If members of the family are fearful, or become irritable with the change in your pets behavior and respond in an unpleasant manner this can feed your pet’s fear resulting in ever-worsening behavior as time goes on.
Anything that has become associated in the dog’s experience with thunderstorms can become a trigger for the fear. So, anytime one of these triggers happens is an opportunity for you to help your dog overcome the fear.
Addressing the problem
Recognizing a problem exists is the first step in correcting the issue. Some animals show overt signs of anxiety including having accidents in the house, panting, drooling, being very clingy or perhaps isolating themselves in a closet or small room. Other signs may be more subtle such as decreased appetite or being less interactive and playful as usual.
There are several options for managing phobias. In mild cases, environmental modification is often enough to keep your pet comfortable. Options like “Thundershirts” or compression vests make some pets feel more comfortable and can be used for any stressful situation – including trips to the vet! Products like Adaptil (an over the counter pheromone based calming product) diffusers or sprays can create a calming environment (Feliway is the kitty version). Creating a “cave” or secluded area can also create a secure feeling for your pet. Sometimes moving your pet’s bed into a small closet, or other enclosed space to reduce noise and visual stimuli will allow him/her to feel protected. Distracting your pet during these stressful times can also be beneficial. For instance, giving a special treat such as a Kong frozen with peanut butter and a few kibbles can keep your pet’s attention focused on happier things. If your pet does not want to be left alone, try engaging him/her in a fun game of fetch or working on tricks for rewards.
Unfortunately many of us like to try and snuggle or soothe our pet in order to help him calm down during these times. Unfortunately these actions result in your pet feeling “rewarded” for fearful behavior. Rewarding a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring more often. Instead we recommend giving rewards when the dog is behaving confidently, calmly, or happily. Work with your dog to develop ways to elicit these behaviors frequently so that you can encourage and reward these behaviors during a storm. This is powerful training that will help you and your dog in all aspects of life.
Be aware that fear can be “contagious” from one dog to another. This makes it all the more important to handle both a fearful dog and a companion carefully, in order to insure everyone is as stress-free as possible.
For The Severe Cases
For some dogs, none of the above recommendations seem to help. In these cases, anti-anxiety medications may be the only thing that can relieve their stress and fear. Many people are reluctant to “drug” their dogs, and this is a great reservation to have. As a veterinarian my goal is to make your pet comfortable, while still allowing him/her to interact with owners and other pets. Therefore, I attempt to find a medication (or combination of medications) that allows your pet to relax without becoming overly sedate. By using an anti-anxiety medication we may be able to control your pet’s nervous energy by “taking the edge off” while still allowing normal function. On occasion we will combine both a medication for increasing anxiety as well as a light sedative to find the relief both your pet (and yourself) deserve. These medications coupled with some of the behavior modifiers listed above can help your pet relax through stressful times.
In general, don’t take thunderstorm phobia lightly. Even if the problem seems minor in your pet, when handled badly by humans, the problem will get worse. A dog whose anxiety used to manifest as panting or vomiting during a storm may find itself fleeing the safety of the yard as these problems progress or even jumping through windows if incredibly stressed. This is a major problem that calls for intelligent handling at the first sign. Treat storms as a routine part of life, nothing to fear, and even perhaps occasion for some special times. Do these things before your dog ever shows signs of phobia, and you will set yourself up for an easy road ahead.