By Dr. Becker
Thunderstorms can strike fear in the heart of even the most normally laidback dog or cat. And what many pet parents don't realize is it's not just the loud clap of thunder that generates a fear response in phobic pets. Lightning, wind, rain, dark skies, changes in barometric pressure, and even odors can trigger a panicked reaction in susceptible dogs and cats.
Since dogs are naturally more demonstrative than cats and more apt to look to their owner for help, a dog's storm phobia symptoms are usually quite obvious. Common signs of phobia-related stress include dilated pupils, drooling, rapid heartbeat, panting, pacing, trembling, potty accidents, and destructive behavior.
Your cat, on the other hand, may simply scoot quietly under the bed or head for another protected spot in your home.
Fear of storms in pets is no laughing matter. In a study of storm-phobic dogs, their plasma cortisol levels jumped over 200 percent from exposure to an audio recording of a storm. And even though we can't scientifically evaluate the emotions of sensitive pets during a thunderstorm, we can safely assume they feel fear and perhaps even terror.
Storm phobia causes extreme anxiety and discomfort not only for four-legged companions, but also for human family members who feel helpless to ease their pet's suffering. If your pet is afraid of storms, don't lose hope. There are things you can do to help your furry friend remain calm when the weather outside is frightful.
Create a Safe Place Where Your Pet Can Go to Avoid the Storm
If your companion is a cat, observe where she goes to "hide out" when she feels the need, and if possible, turn the area into a cozy little safe spot for her. For example, if she heads for a corner of your bedroom closet, considering placing a cat bed on one of those plastic storage tubs most of us have. This will turn her closet hideout into a warm, slightly elevated safe spot.
For dogs, your basement may be just the ticket, or alternatively, a room with sound-proofing wallboard and heavy window coverings. Your dog's safe place should ideally have small covered windows or no windows so he can't see the storm. In the space you set aside, add a solid-sided crate, and leave the door open. The crate should contain food, water, treats, and toys. When you know a storm is approaching, turn on the lights in the room so lightning flashes will be less obvious.
Make sure to spend time playing with your dog in his safe room when it's not storming, and then see if he'll go there on his own when he senses a storm is on the way. Your pet should have access to his safe spot at all times, and especially when you're not at home.
Behavior Modification, Desensitization, and Counterconditioning
One behavior modification technique that may work for a storm phobic dog is to engage him in a behavior that earns a reward. Ask your dog to perform a command or trick he knows and reward him if he does. This activity distracts not only him, but also you, in case you're tempted to inadvertently reinforce his phobic behavior by petting and soothing him while he's showing anxiety.
Another behavior modification you can try involves engaging your dog in a fun activity. Play a game with him, or give him a treat release toy or recreational bone to chew on. One of my favorite ways to distract dogs is with nose work. Use your dog's natural senses to divert his attention, or have fun with Dr. Yin's Manners Minder. Just keep in mind that if your dog's fear response to storms is intense, you may not always be able to soothe him with food rewards or other distractions.
Desensitization involves using a CD with recorded storm sounds to try to desensitize your dog. This is best done during times of the year when real storms are few and far between.
Unfortunately, desensitization isn't always as effective with storm phobias as it is with other types of anxiety disorders. That's because it's difficult to mimic all the various triggers that set off a fear response in a storm-phobic pet – in particular changes in barometric pressure, static electricity, and whatever scents they notice with an impending change in the weather. In addition, desensitization has to be done in each room of the house, because a new coping skill learned in the living room will be forgotten in the kitchen. These problems make desensitization more of a challenge in treating storm phobias.
Counterconditioning involves consistently and repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one, until your pet makes a positive association. For example, if your dog exhibits a fear response each time she hears a thunderclap, offer her a treat each time it happens. The goal is to condition her to associate a treat with the sound of thunder.
Additional Storm Stress Relief Tools for Pets
- Try putting gentle, continuous pressure on your pet to calm her. If she will allow it, try leaning gently on or against her without petting or stroking. If this is helpful to her, you'll feel her muscles begin to relax. If instead she seems to grow more anxious, stop the activity.
- Ttouch is a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets. You can also consider trying EFT to help your four-legged companion.
- Invest in a pheromone diffuser. Species-specific pheromones are chemical substances that can positively affect an animal's emotional state and behavior. There's the D.A.P. diffuser for dogs and Feliway for kitties.
- Consult a holistic veterinarian about homeopathic, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Bach Flower Remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your pet's stress. Some products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include Calm Shen, homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Bach Rescue Remedy, or other similar remedies depending on the animal, Spirit Essence Storm Soother, and OptiBalance Fear & Phobias Formula.
- Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that I've found helpful include holy basil, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP, and chamomile. Consult your holistic vet about which option is right for your pet.
- The essential oil of lavender has also been proven to reduce a pet's stress response. I recommend placing a few drops on your dog's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible, or diffuse the oil around your house for an overall calming effect.
If your pet does seems to respond well to pressure applied to her body, there are wraps available (Thundershirt.com, Anxietywrap.com, Stormdefender.com) that many pet owners and veterinarians have found extremely helpful. You might also consider a ThunderCap.