Dog Thunderstorm Anxiety
May 11, 2011
My dog was awake for three hours the other night while thunderstorms moved through our area. The poor thing was shaking so badly that if she leaned against the bed you would have thought we were having an earthquake. This was my yearly reminder that, before the spring and summer thunderstorms really kick in, I need to start hyposensitizing Makeba to the noise of storms. If your dog has this problem, it is time for you to learn about this irrational behavior, determine what factor scares your dog the most and begin to play low level recordings of the scary sounds until he or she becomes accustomed to and secure with the booming.
Thunderstorm anxiety primarily occurs in dogs, although I have heard of some cats who hide or urinate inappropriately during thunder activity. Affected dogs quiver all over and then begin to seek human attention or some safe place. They pace and pant relentlessly. Some even lose bladder or bowel control. (Makeba peed on my jeans that I had left lying on the floor – guess I deserved that) Treatment for a scared cat would be much the same as that for a dog.
During a thunderstorm, when we aren’t home, my dog pries open the closet door and climbs in on top of shoes and sports equipment. When we are home, she paces, pants, shakes and stays close to our feet. She begins this behavior long before we can actually hear the thunder. Other dogs have much more extreme reactions and cause severe damage to their home. Phobic dogs left outdoors may dive through glass and screens get indoors.
Untreated thunderstorm anxiety gets worse with age and can be exaggerated by a particularly violent storm. Many dogs with other anxieties develop thunderstorm anxiety later in life. Sometimes a move or the loss of a loved one (human or animal) can trigger the phobia. Most of these dogs are also afraid of fireworks and gunshots, but this isn’t always true. Some dogs that freak out every Fourth of July are not affected by storms at all.
The most important thing for people to understand is that coddling the pet during this behavior is the worst thing you can do. Coddling does two things to exaggerate this behavior. First, it actually rewards the behavior and causes dogs to enhance the behavior to get more attention. Second, it may make the dog think that there really is something wrong that they need to be protected from. They sense your anxiety too, and even though you may be more anxious about the dog than about the storm itself, the dog associates your anxiety with the storm.
So, what do you do? It is unbelievably hard not to console your pet when he or she is upset, so here are some other things to try.
Buy or make a recording of thunderstorms. These are readily available with and without music, http://www.hanaleipets.com has a good one. Play it loudly to make sure it elicits the fear response. If it does, then use this recording to slowly modify your pet’s behavior. During the first training sessions, play the recording below your level of hearing and work with your dog on fun tricks, play his favorite game or work with a simple sit and stay routine using treats as rewards. During each session, increase the volume by one notch. If the dog shows any signs of fear, back down to the previous level, continuing to keep your dog’s attention with games and tricks rather than coddling. Eventually, you will be able to increase the volume to a real level with the dog demonstrating confidence, and think of all the new tricks he’ll know! Practice this for 10 minutes once or twice a day.
If a real thunderstorm does catch you by surprise, try to project confidence, not concern. Practice the above tricks and obedience training during the storm. Use the storm as feeding time to provide positive reinforcement.
If your pet is not responding well to the recordings, you may want to consider getting some behavior-modifying drugs. Your veterinarian can help you choose the one that will work best for your pet. Sedatives are often useful if given half an hour before thunderstorm activity. These drugs are less effective if they are given after the fear has already begun. Anti-anxiety drugs that are given daily may be more useful during our thunderstorm and hurricane season since storms come so regularly. These drugs don’t have immediate effect, but after two weeks of use, they greatly increase the threshold trigger for anxiety. Daily anti-anxieties are a particularly good choice if your dog has other anxieties. My dog’s problem is severe enough that I use a daily anti-anxiety during thunderstorm season and I give her another short-acting anti-anxiety medication if a storm comes along.
I have had good luck with the Storm Cape (www.stormdefender.com) which modifies the static electricity that the dogs are picking up in the air. The Thunder Shirts (www.thundershirt.com) have helped a lot of my patients with all types of anxiety. They apply soothing pressure around the chest that calms the dog in all situations.
The bach flower Rescue Remedy is an herbal drop which works very quickly to calm a dog. Two, four or six drops on the tongue for small, medium and large dogs respectively, can work for mildly affected dogs. You can use Rescue Remedy with other drugs if you need even more relaxation.
No pill or shirt is going to cure your dog of this problem, but using all of the above treatments will help alleviate some of the signs of anxiety. Relapse to severe anxiety is common, so continue to project the confidence that your pet needs in its leader. Projecting this image for young dogs can actually help prevent this scary and dangerous phobia.