Tuesday, October 20, 2009
By Linda Cole
A thunderstorm is a natural weather condition that produces cracks of thunder which can shake a house to the core. A fearful pet will scamper under the bed before the thunder has finished echoing across the sky. Thunderstorm anxiety in pets is real, and can be a traumatic experience. Although thunderstorms occur most often in spring and summer, they can happen in fall and winter, too. A rare weather phenomenon called thundersnow can occur in late winter or early spring, producing loud claps of thunder and usually heavy snow. So pets with a fear of storms can be affected by thunderstorm activity all year long.
While many dogs and cats are carefree animals that never give a passing storm the time of day, others become anxious before a thunderstorm darkens the skies. Dogs seem to experience thunderstorm anxiety more often than cats, but cats can have a fear of storms as well.
My rescued German Shepard/Collie mix trembles when a thunderstorm is in our area. She wraps herself around me as tight as she can get and shakes from head to toe until the thunderstorm drifts away. If we are outside and she hears thunder in the distance, she's inside in a flash and refuses to come back out. Her eyes are wide as she listens for the next thunder boom. Thankfully, she isn't aggressive. In severe cases of thunderstorm anxiety in pets, dogs have jumped through windows injuring themselves or someone in the family, and some do become aggressive.
There is evidence animals have an ability to predict the weather using their sense of smell and hearing as well as having an awareness of detecting changes in atmospheric pressure. Because of this sixth sense, our pets usually know a thunderstorm is approaching long before we do. Pets that are fearful of storms may pace, shake, drool, whine, bark, pant, hide or even run away from home as soon as they sense a storm brewing.
An Internet survey of dog owners suggests that herding dogs and hounds tend to suffer from thunderstorm anxiety more than other breeds. Rescued or shelter dogs are also more apt to be fearful of storms. It's possible that puppies or kittens can sense our uneasiness which reinforces their fear. So a pet's fear of thunderstorms could be something they learn at a young age, or is a fear developed from uncaring owners who may have mistreated them or left them on their own for a period of time. Regardless of how or when thunderstorm anxiety in pets develops, there are things you can do to help ease your pet's fear.
Thunderstorm anxiety in pets has different levels of fear that can go all the way to phobia. Most pets can be kept calm in a safe place where they feel comfortable, such as a crate (kennel) they sleep in or a well lit cozy room in the basement away from a storm's fury. Most cats never get to the phobia stage and will simply hide in a spot they feel comfortable in until the storm moves on. Try not to cuddle or reassure your pet that everything is alright because this rewards the fearful behavior. However, that's easier said than done.
If thunderstorm anxiety in pets isn't severe, you can try to desensitize your dog or cat by playing a recording of a thunderstorm starting off with a storm in the distance and gradually coming closer. Have plenty of treats on hand to reward your pet only as long as he remains calm. The idea is to condition him with treats for good behavior so he learns to ignore the storm through positive reinforcement. If your pet becomes anxious as the fake storm grows louder, ignore his behavior, do not give him a treat and reduce the sound until he calms down. You have to be careful with this technique, because if you move too fast or don't notice your pet's fear increase, it can make things worse. Make sure you know what you are doing if you try to desensitize your pet.
Music has been used successfully in treating thunderstorm anxiety in pets. Cats and dogs love classical music, but stick to a nice Brahms or Mozart – something relaxing and calm.
Natural remedies may be able to help, but it would be best to discuss the use of any medications, natural or prescription, with your vet first. A vet can prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depressants if necessary.
Thunderstorm anxiety in pets can range from mild to severe. If your pet becomes aggressive, his fear grows into panic, you are afraid he may hurt himself or someone else or has injured himself, then it's time to discuss options with your veterinarian who can help you help your pet the next time a thunderstorm pops up overhead.
Read more articles by Linda Cole