Pet Vet: You can help your pet control fear of storms
I used to love sleeping when it rained, snoozing soundly within a safe cocoon of covers. I'd rest in peaceful slumber as the lightning crashed and the thunder rolled.
This is no longer true. Let me introduce Daisy, our "fraidy-dog." Any time lightning slashes across the sky, Daisy's convinced Armageddon is upon us.
She paces. She pants. She tries to hide.
If I somehow manage to snooze through this initial panic, Daisy will force me awake with the magic power of her stare. "Wake up, Mommy, the sky is falling and we're all gonna die!"
Then I'm up and running for her anti-anxiety meds. Otherwise, none of us are going to get any sleep. Correction — otherwise I'm not going to get any shut-eye. My husband could snore through a giant twister and never flutter an eyelid of concern.
Thunderstorm phobia is not uncommon in dogs. This summer has been hard on the dogs that shake, rattle, and roll whenever it rains. More dogs than cats appear fearful and anxious during thunderstorms. It's believed that while cats may experience storm phobia, they usually just hide, so this probably goes unnoticed.
Signs of storm phobia can be mild (pacing, panting, drooling, whining, hiding) to extreme (vocalization, panic, urine or stool accidents, escape, destruction of property). Some dogs' fear worsens with age, although one of the few benefits of hearing loss in an old dog is a sudden decrease in the severity of his storm phobia.
Thunderstorm phobia is a form of noise phobia. These dogs may also tremble when they hear fireworks or gunshots.
The efficacy of non-medical management may prove limited, but there are a few things you can try. Block windows so lightning is less visible. Use background noise, such as a radio or TV, to muffle thunder cracks.
Never punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only increase their fear. Don't coddle them either, because this encourages their fear. Try to stay neutral and disengaged. If you must hold your pet, apply constant pressure to their sides instead of petting them.
A few over-the-counter products may help. The Thundershirt applies Temple Grandin's theories of sensory therapy and constant pressure as a calming force. The DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) plug-in products or collars may help some storm phobic dogs.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning
Play a thunderstorm recording quietly in the background. Start with five minutes at a time and work your way up gradually. Engage your pet in a fun activity, such as eating or playing fetch, while the noise of thunder plays in the background. Build your pet's tolerance up slowly and back off when signs of fear are evident.
Some dogs — mine included — need more than behavioral modification. They require drugs to relieve their fears. Anti-anxiety medications help calm noise phobic dogs during storms. The main side effect of some of these medications is sedation. If your dog suffers from storm phobia, discuss the use of such medications with your veterinarian.