Storm phobia is no laughing matter. Imagine sleeping on your favorite couch, maybe dreaming of chasing the cat and being awoken by loud noises in a distance. These noises appear to be getting closer each second, you can’t possibly understand why the house and your favorite chair shake. You are able to sense changes in barometric pressure and ozone level, you know something is happening but what? Then suddenly you start to see bright flashes of light and hear things and you have no idea of why these are happening. Instantaneously, you go from sleeping to an extreme level of fear and anxiety. So what do you do? All of the sudden you start to shake, your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate and you look for any possible way to escape. Sometimes you can find a cold, quiet area such as a bathtub or a closet, more often you will try to get out of the house and in the process destroy things such as doors, windows or furniture.
Dogs tend to suffer from anxiety to storms much more often than cats, and this fear can have very severe consequences. Storm fear can be the first step toward a severe phobia that can literally paralyze a normally calm pet and cause them to cause considerable damage to your house and cause terrible stress for your pet. Signs of storm phobia include hiding, shaking, crying or whining, excessive licking, eliminating in the house, pacing, panting, drooling, restlessness, trying to escape into or out of the house/pen, or looking to a pet owner for comfort by pawing the owner, nuzzling, or whimpering.
We don’t fully understand why dogs have these fears, but we do know that dogs who suffer from other forms of anxiety such as separation, noise, firework or generalized anxiety are at an increased risk of having storm phobia as well.
How can we manage and help a pet with storm phobia?
Helping your dog deal with storm phobia effectively requires multiple methods of treatment. Our office is always available to help you deal with this fear, one of the most important things we can do is try to solve the problem when you first notice it. While it may seem “cute” for a puppy to curl into our laps at the first crack of lightning, this minimal fear will quickly progress to severe phobia and significantly impact your dog’s quality of life. There are many different ways that we can address storm phobia these include:
- Minimize the stimuli from a storm by limiting your dog’s exposure to it. This includes closing the blinds so your pet cannot see lightning; keeping your pet in an interior room so thunder and rain are muffled; and playing white noise, such as boxed fan, or soothing music (e.g. classical music) during a storm. A crate covered with a blanket may help. It is important to monitor your pet if a crate is used to ensure he does not become more anxious while in the crate. Remember, they can also get dehydrated in the crate if they are constantly panting. Some dogs may feel trapped in such an environment. If your pet has a specific place they like to hide during storms, you may want to continue to allow access to this area instead of creating a new space for him.
- Avoid comforting your pet too much during storms. In fact, it is best to ignore your dog if at all possible. Giving your pet attention during this time can unfortunately condition your pet to continue having fearful responses. Playing with your pet as a distraction can be a helpful alternative. Play provides a way to avoid ignoring your anxious dog without reinforcing anxious behavior. Remain calm during your interactions. If you seem anxious, even if it is because you are worried about how your pet will react to the storm, your pet may pick up on your anxiety and become even more anxious and fearful.
- Desensitization to storm noises can help. Play storm noises at a low level during periods of good weather. There are many recordings available on the web that can be played in a loop during the day. The volume should only be set at a level that does not cause distress to your dog. Over an extended period of time, you can increase the volume to help your pet become comfortable with storm sounds. During these sessions, keep your pet distracted and at ease with treats, playtime, and toys.
- Give your pet a chew toy or a treat-dispensing toy with food inside, such as peanut butter, or a food puzzle toy to distract him during the storm. Chewing is a proven stress reliever in dogs.
- Body wraps may help keep your pet relaxed. A study performed on Thundershirts, showed a decrease in heart rate on dogs with generalized anxiety. These dogs also showed some reduction of several stress behaviors, such as licking and yawning as well. However, this study was not done with dogs suffering from storm anxiety and many of these patients were already on other medical interventions. Sometimes we can decrease the sights from a storm, such as wind and lightning. Headphones or ear muffs for dogs can decrease storm noises (but not likely to be well tolerated).
- Aromatherapy, including lavender and/or chamomile, or pheromone therapy can help lessen your pet’s anxiety during storms. There are several natural remedies that can also be tried these include tryptophan, theanine, Magnolia/Phellodendron, and whey protein isolates.
- Never punish or yell at your pet for being afraid. If they are destructive or eliminates inappropriately during a storm, remember that it’s because they are afraid. Punishing your dog can worsen the storm phobia.
- The last option may be prescription medications. Medication is not usually helpful by itself, but can be very helpful when used in combination with other storm phobia treatment methods. The medication can reduce the level of fear and anxiety your pet has in order to allow other storm phobia treatment methods to work. It is important to understand that many medications used for storm phobia need to be given daily even if the weather is good to work properly.
Your pet’s quality of life is very important to us. Please call us if your pet suffers from anxiety. It really is a terrible feeling to be afraid and helpless to do anything about it.