“The Sky is Falling!” Storm Anxiety in Pets

South Florida summers can be tough for some of my patients. They are especially hard for a German Shepherd mix named Charlie, who was found abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. Like a psychic weatherman, Charlie can sense a coming storm before there is even a cloud in the sky. When the rain starts, he jumps onto the dining room table in response to what he must perceive, as an impending flood.

If you share your life with a pet like Charlie, you know the routine: shaking, panting, pacing, drooling, destructiveness, and lack of appetite, just to name a few. Here are some suggestions to help our furry friends weather the storms.

Create a safe space

Like pets who deal with fireworks phobia, storm phobic pets need a safe space to ride out the event. Unlike fireworks, however, storms can be unpredictable, and often occur when owners are not at home. A closet can make for an ideal safe space, as they are dark, cozy, and insulated with hanging clothes. A crate covered with a blanket and lined with bedding is also a great choice. Cats will often find their own safe space and retreat to it as needed, but dogs usually need a little more help from us. If you are home during a storm, take him to the safe space and stay with him if you can. If he chooses a different one, that is okay too! Reward his initiative with lots of praise and positive re-enforcement.

Many clients have reported that their pets have a bizarre habit of hiding in a bathtub or shower stall during storms. Pets like Charlie can be especially aware of the electrical charges that occur in the atmosphere before and during storms. While imperceptible to humans, animals sense these charges. Many are overly sensitive to them, and the sensations they cause can be terrifying. Tile can act as an insulator against the charges. While a bathtub may seem a strange place to hide, this odd choice is actually a self-soothing behavior. Reward this good choice with lots of praise and affection. Before leaving the house during storm season, make sure all doors to closets, bathrooms, shower stalls and crates are left open so your pet has easy access to a stress free zone.

Invest in a summer wardrobe

The Thundershirt is a tightly fitting garment for both dogs and cats that uses gentle pressure to soothe anxious pets. Our younger dog, Zohan, wears one to help him cope with fireworks. While not a miracle cure, many of our clients have reported substantial improvement. Another option is the Storm Defender Cape, the lining of which helps neutralize those pesky electrical charges.

Try synthetic pheromones

DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) for dogs and Feliway for cats are products that simulate the pheromones of lactating mother dogs or cats. While undetectable to humans, these products produce a calming scent that our pets associate with the sense of safety and security felt by puppies and kittens when their mommies are caring for them. They are available as sprays, diffusers, or collars and the best prices can be found on Amazon.com.

Throw storm parties

If you are home with your dog during a thunderstorm, try running him through some basic obedience commands. Reward him lavishly with lots of praise and high-value treats. This is where trick training becomes your best friend. The more tricks your dog knows, the more tools you have to distract him from his fear. My wife is fond of telling clients that dogs are like us men - incapable of thinking about two things at the same time! If your dog is focused on tricks and games, he is less likely to focus on the sounds of impending doom. The trick is to get him to focus on you, so when I say high-value treats, I don’t mean dry kibble. The potential for reward has to be so powerful that he sees his human as being more valuable than whatever is going on outside. Look for training treats that are meaty, chewy, and heavily scented. Each reward should be small, so that he is motivated to do more. This is not necessarily the time to teach new commands, but rather to go through his existing repertoire. The feelings of mastery and accomplishment should displace those of anxiety and help to build his confidence. It can also help create positive associations with storms, which will help him to cope with his fear when he is alone during a storm. Our older dog, Grendel actually enjoys watching storms from our bedroom window!

If you have a young dog who does not appear to be storm phobic, teach these behaviors anyway. Storm anxiety generally peaks at three to four years of age, so use this time to build his confidence and acquire the tools you may need later.

If your dog is too frightened to focus on you, do not force the issue. His fear of disappointing you will only add to his fear of the weather event. Try tempting him with a favorite toy, or encouraging him to chase a ball around the house. If that doesn’t work either, simply shut it down. Never scold or punish your pet for being frightened, and never force him to “deal with it” by leaving him outside during a storm. If none of these techniques work, this next step may be your only option.

Consider chemical courage

In the past, veterinarians prescribed powerful sedatives to tranquilize pets during storms. Recent research, however, has shown that while these drugs do a great job of shutting down the body, they do nothing to quiet the animal’s anxious mind. The more modern approach is to prescribe anti-anxiety medications, most of which are given on a daily basis. These medications take about two weeks to take effect, and it may take even more time to find the dose that is most helpful for your pet. Some of my clients start giving the medications in May, and discontinue them once hurricane season ends. Since every pet is different, it is important to discuss this option with your veterinarian. Most importantly, anti-anxiety medications are intended to be used in conjunction with behavioral modification. When you talk to your vet about medication, be sure he or she also recommends a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a miracle pill.

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