It is finally spring in Minnesota! The snow is melting and the weather is changing. It will soon be thunderstorm season which can cause fear and anxiety in pets. The symptoms of storm anxiety (also known as storm phobia) range from mild pacing to severe panic. Most pets that have storm anxiety get worse over time unless we can break the cycle of fear and help calm them. Talk with your veterinarian about storm anxiety and options for treating your pet.
Both dogs and cats can be afraid of storms. Sometimes, your pet will know that a storm is coming before you do! They are very sensitive to barometric pressure changes and they can “feel” the storm before they can see or hear it. Their intense ability to smell enables them to detect rain and an approaching storm, as well. Pets can also be sensitive to lightning and thunder. The lightning causes rapid changes between light and dark. Those flashes are very distressing to animals because they process visual information differently than people (for an interesting perspective on this, read Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures). Thunder can also be very disturbing to animals. The loud, sudden noise can scare them because they don’t understand where the noise is coming from and they often associate loud noises with danger.
Signs of Storm Anxiety
Pets may display mild signs of storm anxiety like pacing, trembling, hiding or panting. It may progress to more severe signs like vocalizing, drooling, loss of bladder or bowel control, chewing or other destructive behavior. Some dogs are so afraid that they will bolt or even jump out of windows to find a safe place to hide.
Provide a Safe Place
Always ensure that your dog or cat has a “safe place” to go to when a storm is approaching. A “safe place” is a quiet, comforting place for them. For some dogs, their crate can be a “safe place”. If your dog is not accustomed to using a crate, try to find a place that is dark and quiet. A basement is often an ideal place during a storm. Close the drapes to limit the flashes from lightning as much as possible. It may help to leave a radio or television on for background noise to distract from the thunder. If your pet has already chosen a place to hide during storms, allow them to continue to use that area and attempt to block the lightning and thunder as much as possible. Try to get into a routine before the storm starts and encourage your pet to go to the “safe place”. Make sure that the safe place is accessible even when your pet is home alone.
Desensitization and Counter-conditioning
The most effective way to prevent and treat storm anxiety is behavioral modification. This is often the most difficult and time consuming part for pet owners. The goal is to modify the anxiety and stress created by the storm by teaching your pet to relax and then rewarding the calm behavior with a toy or treat. Once your pet has mastered a way to calm down on command, the pet is exposed to the sound of thunder, usually through the use of a digital recording. The sound and intensity of the thunder is kept low enough to prevent a fear response and the pet is rewarded for remaining calm. Gradually, over time the sound of thunder is increased and the pet is taught to associate the thunder with a positive experience like the toy or treat instead of a fearful response. Behavior modification can be tricky and, for severe cases, it is often best to work with a veterinary behaviorist.
Some pets respond very well to a Thundershirt™ which is a special vest-like shirt that is worn during storms. The shirt is designed to fit snugly and apply constant, gentle pressure which is comforting to dogs (similar to swaddling a baby).
Dog Appeasing Pheromone, D.A.P. ®, is a hormone produced to mimic the hormones that a nursing mother dog releases. The hormone helps to calm dogs that are stressed. The most effective form of D.A.P. ® is a wearable collar that looks similar to a flea collar. The collar emits a constant source of this relaxing hormone. Another similar product called Feliway is available for cats.
Long-term Anxiety Medication
A large percentage of dogs that have other types of anxiety, such as separation anxiety, also have storm anxieties. Dogs can have all kinds of noise phobias, of which, thunder phobia is just one. These dogs benefit from a long-term anti-anxiety medication. These medications are similar to human medications like Prozac.
Short-term Anxiety Medication
For dogs that have storm anxiety only, a short-term anti-anxiety medication can be used to calm them for a few hours. The medications work quickly and wear off after the storm passes. Talk to your veterinarian about options for short-term medications. It is important to make sure that dogs are healthy before starting the medications.
If you are concerned that your pet may have storm anxiety, schedule a consultation with your veterinarian. She can discuss the severity and determine whether medications are needed to help keep your pet calm during a storm.