Information for this article has been compiled from various online resources, all listed at the end, but also supplemented by local vets. Thank you to everyone who responded to my messages!
It’s that time of year again. The time when your dog might tremble, whine, or pace. The time when your cat might hide in a cupboard, under the bed, or inside your couch. The time when your guinea pig or other small critter might shake, bolt, or run for cover. It’s the season of lightning bolts electrifying the sky and thunder roaring through our neighborhood.
Those with pets who suffer from storm anxiety typically won’t outgrow fears on their own. Just the opposite, in fact. Their fears will tend to intensify throughout the season as storms become more frequent, and with each new storm season their fears will be worse than the last. Obviously there is a need for pet owners to provide support. This article will help you understand your pet’s fear, recognize the signs of a developing phobia, and find ways to support your otherwise calm and happy pet.
STORM ANXIETY TRIGGERS
A distant rumble. A flash of light. Animal experts aren’t certain exactly what aspect of a thunderstorm causes our pets the most discomfort. Some veterinarians suspect dogs are set off by a combination of wind, thunder, lightning, barometric pressure changes, static electricity, and low-frequency rumbles that precede a storm.
Negative experiences might also be a trigger. For example, some of our four-footed companions may experience painful shocks from static buildup before a storm. Alternatively, some pets might just suffer from noise phobia, also fearing fireworks, gunshots, and other loud noises.
Our own actions may also contribute to our pet’s storm phobia. If you react in fear to a storm, so might your pet. Perhaps my husband’s love of storms is why our dog Barnaby is not afraid of them? The two of them will stand on the porch while the rain falls, the lightning strikes, and the thunder crashes. My husband talks calmly or excitedly, but never fearfully, about the weather going on around them.
There’s also the fact that, just as with people, some pets may be worriers in general and will panic at any change. Others may be overly sensitive to sound. Some sources say that herding breeds, such as border collies, can be more predisposed to the problem. Dogs with other fearful behaviors, such as separation anxiety, also seem more prone to panic during storms.
I posed the question of what might trigger anxiety during storms to local veterinarian, Dr. Otto of Cotner Pet Care. In his thirty plus years of practice, he has found that the more hyper a dog is, the more susceptible that dog is to storm phobia. He has not found any breed correlation, even noting that one of his Shelties couldn’t stand storms while his other Sheltie couldn’t care less about storms. Dogs are individuals.
STORM ANXIETY SIGNS
Foremost, you need to recognize that the pets who suffer from thunderstorm fear are not misbehaving, but are displaying symptoms of anxiety. One study of dogs with thunderstorm phobia actually measured an increase of more than 200 percent in plasma cortisol levels from exposure to an audio recording of a storm.
“Thunderstorms are a common canine phobia. The phobia often occurs in canines with other anxiety disorders and can arise from a fear of the noise or the lightning flashes. It’s not always just from the thunder. Strong winds can also cause dogs to react.”
–NEBRASKA ANIMAL MEDICAL CENTER
Dogs: A dog with a thunderstorm phobia may try to run away in panic or look for a hiding place that feels safe from the storm. Then again, your dog might stay right next to you and follow you from room to room. Other physical signs of a storm stress include: drooling, panting, sweating (from the paws), whining, barking, and pacing. In the case of full-blown phobia, dogs might chew, claw, scratch, tear down door frames, or even break through windows.
Cats: A cat with a thunderstorm phobia will probably only show mild signs such as: developing large pupils, being anti-social, and even hiding. More severe signs include: rising hair coat, tail bushy, hunkering down and tense body, hissing and spitting.
In talking with Dr. Otto about why so little information exists regards storms and cats, he told me that cats have a different reaction to stress. They tend to keep it inside and then display it through illness such as inflammatory bladder syndrome. To help cats who fear storms, owners might need to break the behavioral mode cycle of a cat peeing inappropriately in the house. However, Dr. Otto also noted that cats are more likely to experience anxiety due to environmental changes such as a move or a new animal.
Exotics: I found very little information about exotic pets and storms. When I owned guinea pigs, any loud noise would elicit a reaction. If you consider that in terms of loudness, sneezes are perhaps 90 decibels while a thunderclap can be as loud as 100 to 120 decibels, you can imagine why the latter would send many small pets scurrying.
STORM ANXIETY SOLUTIONS
There seems to be one established way to help alleviate storm stress for all companion animals—whether you have a cat, exotic, or another pet like a bird. This is listed first; the remaining tips pertain mostly to dogs and cats.
“If your pet shows anxiety during storms, There are a few simple things you can do to help calm him. It is best to have your pet in a room without windows, not only for physical safety, but also so your pet does not see the flashes of lightning which may add to his stress. Make sure all of the exits to your home are secured, as pets can run away when stressed or scared….”
–WACHAL PET HEALTH CENTER
Probably the best treatment is avoidance. If there’s a place where your pet feels safe, you can have your pet ride out the storm there; and if you don’t, create one. Be sure your pet can come and go freely, as some animals become anxious if confined. Then stock the safe area with food, water, treats, and toys. You might also include soft blankets or pillows. At the approach of a storm, turn on the lights in the room so any flashes of lightening that make it through the window coverings won’t be too obvious. Nebraska Animal Medical Center also suggested eye shades or goggles, which might protect those pets who fear lightning. Then let your pet retreat until ready to join you again.
Dogs: A safe place could be an open crate, a bathroom, another interior room with music playing, or a finished basement. The latter is actually a great starting place. Basements have the advantage of being semi-subterranean, insulated against sound by concrete walls and surrounding soil. Basement windows can be blocked off using cardboard or thick curtains.
“During storms the most scary things are typically the light and sound, so trying to block out those things is a good start. Pull the blinds, confine to a room that is blocked from the light or cover the kennel with a blanket. To block the sound you can turn on a radio or a TV.”
–VINTAGE HEIGHTS VETERINARY HOSPITAL
Cats: A safe place might also be the basement or bathroom or perhaps a closet or laundry room. Another option is to provide several cozy hideaway options. An “A” frame or igloo style bed may provide just the right amount of comfort and security for an anxious cat. If you have multiple hideaways throughout the house (ideally, in your most-used rooms), that might encourage your cat to stay close to you rather than retreat to a solitary (but possibly distant) safe room.
Caged Pets: You might cover their cage with a large blanket to help keep flashes out, make a protected spot right within their cage, or even move their entire cage to a safe room. This will allow your exotics or birds to put distance between themselves and the things that make scary loud noises. In addition, you might want to take out some of the toys or other accessories that they may get caught up in if they panic and run or flap around inside the cage.
How many times have you tried to comfort a pet and ended up just making things worse? The problem is that coddling may actually reinforce (a.k.a., reward) your pet’s anxiety. But experts say there is a way to pet and comfort that sends a calming signal.
“No one treatment plan helps every dog suffering from storm anxiety. You should stop seeking to reassure the canine by saying “it’s okay”, because your dog knows it is not and can become confused. Instead teach your dog to relax and not react in normal situations, then use the same behavior modification during the storms. Do not pet, but massaging with slow, long, firm, strokes, and leaning against your pet might help.”
–NEBRASKA ANIMAL MEDICAL CENTER
Not getting fearful yourself is the first step. The next step is to provide your pet with positive distractions. Simply sitting with your pet before they become anxious might help. Distracting your pet with play or with a favorite toy can also put them at ease. Soothing music can drown out the more distant thunder claps. For guinea pigs, try offering food. If they like to be held, that could also work. Anything that sends the positive message that storms are good will potentially cause your pet to relax.
While you shouldn’t scold your pet for fear, you also don’t want to reward clingy behavior. What you want to do instead is help your pet forget about the storm by replacing the fear with something positive.
For dogs and cats, prior to storms, you can practice getting them to respond to obedience commands. Then when a storm comes up, you can issue your commands. Because your pet will be eager to earn rewards, you just might be able to successfully distract them.
One tip that I found specifically for dogs is to teach them to: “Come. Lie down.” If the command is followed, you can slip a leash on your dog and encourage him to rest comfortably at your feet during a storm.
A tip that I found specifically for cats is to ensure they’re hungry before a storm. Then your cat will feel more motivated by food when you issue obedience commands. In addition, only delicious, practically irresistible food treats should be used as bait.
“There are many different options to help your pet remain calm during a thunderstorm…. If your pet is a little anxious, using a pheromone spray such as Adaptil or Feliaway may be all that’s needed…. There are also all natural supplements … such as Composure and Anxitane which uses compounds like tryptophan and l-theanine to produce a calming effect. These compounds are the reason why you feel so sleepy after eating turkey or relaxed after drinking green tea. Thunder jackets are also a wonderful asset. While they might not completely control a pet with severe anxiety, I have several clients and family members with dogs using the Thunder shirt and they work extremely well.”
–Dr. Amy Walton, COTNER PET CARE
Snug-fitting shirts and wraps especially designed to calm anxious pets have been recommended by animal experts. They’re said to have a calming effect similar to swaddling a baby. Some also have anti-static linings. An often-named garment is Thundershirt, but I don’t have experience with it and so am merely reporting what I have read.
If you do decide to try an anxiety garment, give your pet time to adjust to it. This means have your pet wear it before a storm. Also, start with a light pressure and then distract him with some play.
There are commercial pheromone products that mimic pets’ calming natural pheromones. Some people find that the products work well; my husband and I didn’t see any difference when we used the products for other stress situations.
I asked Dr. Otto how one will know when a dog needs medical support. He noted first that dogs have other fears in addition to loud storms and fireworks, such as the stress of being alone. In all of these cases, the time for intervention occurs when the dog is becoming a danger to itself and/or when the owner is staying up all night to deal with a storm-crazed dog.
Dr. Otto also told me of a product that he heard about at an anesthesia seminar, called Dexdomitor. This prescription medication is predictable, consistent, and safe in its performance. However, he also indicated not being in favor of drugs as a solution unless other treatments have been tried and failed.
If none of the ideas described above help alleviate your pet’s fears, please do consult your veterinarian. He or she will be best equipped to offer ideas for behavior medication and to assess whether medication may also be needed for your pet to help them through storms.