Tabatha Regehr, DVM
Pet Poison Helpline
Spring has sprung which means the grass is growing, the flowers are blooming, and the dark day of winter are ending. The downside associated with spring is that thunderstorm season has also arrived which can be extremely stressful for dogs and cats with storm phobia.
Storm phobia in pets can range from mild signs like panting, pacing, and slightly altered behavior to severe signs like food avoidance, environment destruction, and intense panic. There is no one trick, medication, or magic product that will ease storm phobia. Today we will discuss the common tools for aiding in storm fear management. Before undertaking any of these tools you should consult with your regular veterinarian or animal behavior specialist.
Diminishing the trigger: The barometric pressure changes before you and I realize it, but your pet has already recognized the drop. What is next? Lightening. The lightening precedes the boom of the unpredictable thunder. How can we help? Close those curtains, turn on the lights, kennel or crate an animal (only if he is already used to confinement), cover the kennel with a towel, and turn on white noise. My preferred white noise is a loud fan place near the kennel or crate.
Avoid fear reinforcement: When our pets are scared we have a natural habit of reinforcing that fear. We hold them, snuggle them, reward with love and treats using our sweetest and softest voices. This expression of affection tells our pets they are doing a great job panicking. We have given them the ultimate reward for being scared. What we express as soothing is seen by our pets as praise for being afraid. Your goal during a storm is to act as if everything is just fine. Be your normal calm self and undertake your normal daily activities.
Compression jackets: A common example is a product called the Thundershirt. These are compression jackets to make a dog or cat feel hugged and held securely. This should be placed on at the time of the anxiety inducing event and discontinued once the event is over. You should always practice using these items long before you need it for a storm. Compression wear alone will seldom control phobias and should be used as part of a multi modal approach to fear.
Medication: Pets with severe storms phobia may need medication. There are two approaches to storm management. One is a situational medication which will be a short acting anti-anxiety product for each storm event. Second is the addition of a long term daily medication use for retraining the brain’s response to fear.
Behavior Modification: This is the most critical part of the all the components of storm season and should be directed by your regular veterinarian. We need to train your pet how to stay calm in a fearful situation. This means using all your above tools the same way, with the same approach for every single storm event.
No one item from this list will control severe storm phobia. All behavior modification plans are trial and error. Please work with your veterinarian to determine the best plan for your storm phobic dog or cat.