With the recent storms hitting the East Coast of Australia and possibly some more coming this season, it is important to talk about thunderstorm fears and phobias in dogs – and what we can do to help our furry friends feel less scared during storms.
Is it normal for dogs to be scared of wind, rain, thunder and lightning?
Many dogs dislike storms and they may react to them in one of many ways. Some just come inside to get out of the rain, wind and noise. However, some can be distressed and show signs like barking, hiding, shaking, seeking physical contact or escaping (even when the owners are around). Some dogs cope better, because they learnt to cope with storms as puppies (this is what we call habituation), but some pets get sensitised to storms and every time they get a fright, it just gets worse and worse the next time.
The old saying of “Oh, he’ll get used to it!” does not work with dogs who are scared of storms. Without intervention and treatment, storm fears usually get worse as time goes by and affected dogs may develop a storm phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder which has serious quality of life and health effects.
What can you do?
First of all, look for changes in your pet’s behaviour when a thunderstorm arrives. Changed body posture, lowered tail base, panting, pacing around and trembling can be signs of a stressed dog.
Turn the radio or TV on to block the sound of thunder, close the blinds and curtains and switch the lights on (this will help minimize the lightning effect).
If your pet starts to look for a hiding spot (usually small dark places are favoured like toilets or under the bed), then consider having an open crate available for your dog at all times. Make sure it is dark inside so cover the top and sides with a lightweight material. Give your pet a long lasting chew item (such as a pig’s ear or bully stick) or a lickimat with some of their favourite stuff smeared on it (cream cheese, peanut butter, liver pate) and see if they are interested in it. If they usually can’t resist a pig’s ear or a lickimat, but can’t eat them during a storm, then they are probably too stressed to eat! That’s when you should talk to a behaviour veterinarian.
Does your pet seek more physical affection or act more clingy? Then give them attention and reassurance. You can’t make a fearful animal more afraid by stroking them – that is an old myth that has been debunked a long time ago.
Try to engage your pet in a game of tug or give them a food puzzle to solve – something positive to distract them from worrying about the storm. If they can’t be distracted with a pleasurable activity, then they may need supportive medication for storms.
Dog appeasing pheromones like Adaptil spray or oral supplement such as Zylkene may assist in mild cases, but they might not provide enough support for more panicky pets.
If you notice signs of destruction, digging under the fenceline, scratching, chewing or your pet has escaped during a storm, then please seek urgent veterinary attention. It is not okay for a pet to feel so panicked that they run away from its home.
What if my pet is on already on medication?
If your dog is already on some type of situational medication for storms, then check the weather app on your phone (you can even opt in for storm alerts), and if there is a storm predicted for later during the day, dose the medication. It is still better to give them the medication pre-emptively and the storm not eventuate than not giving it at all. If you forgot to give the medication and you come home to a panty, stressy Fido, then it is still beneficial to give him the medication as this will aid your pet’s recovery.
If the medication does not seem to be working, or the signs have progressed, talk to the veterinarian who prescribed it, or seek help from a qualified behaviour veterinarian for a review of the medication. There is always more than one option, so please don’t let your pet stress about storms.
For more information on behavioural consultations with Dr Bronwen Bollaert BVSc MSc MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour) or to arrange an appointment, please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0481 527 678.