South Florida summers can be tough for pets. They can be especially hard for one of mine. At Casa Kupkee, we don’t even need to look for rainclouds to know when a storm is approaching. Our younger dog, Zohan, seems to know when a storm is coming, and he responds to said knowledge by attempting to glue himself to the nearest human body.
If you share your life with a pet like Zohan, you know the routine: shaking, panting, pacing, drooling, destructiveness, and lack of appetite, just to name a few. Here are some suggestions to help your furry friends - and mine! - 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, tropical weather can be unpredictable, and often occurs when owners are not at home. A closet can make for an ideal safe space, as they are dark, cozy, and partially soundproofed with hanging clothes. A crate covered with a blanket and lined with bedding is also a great choice. 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.
Cats, on the other hand, will often find their own safe space, will and retreat to it as needed. If you notice your kitty tends to disappear under a bed, or into a closet during storms, resist the urge to haul her out and “comfort” her. This is a self-soothing behavior, and should be encouraged. Do not restrict her access to these places, as this will only increase her level of anxiety. Watch her carefully for any changes in her litter box habits. Urinating outside the litter box, blood in the litter, and vocalizing in the litter box are just a few of the clinical signs that can signal the onset of stress-related urinary tract abnormalities. If your cat is showing any such signs, she needs to see your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Invest in a summer wardrobe
Zohan rocks the summer fashion scene with a tightly fitting garment that uses gentle pressure to soothe anxious pets. While not a miracle cure, it helps him tremendously, and many of our clients have also reported substantial improvement. It is available for both dogs and cats. Other wearable options boast linings which claim to help neutralize the charges that accompany electrical storms. This is not an endorsement of these products, but simply options from which you might choose.
Try synthetic pheromones
Synthetic pheromones mimic the pheromones of lactating mother dogs or cats. While undetectable to humans, they produce a calming scent our pets associate with feelings of security and safety. Such pheromones create the sense of well-being and calm felt by puppies and kittens when their mommies are caring for them. Synthetic pheromones 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 companion 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 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
If none of the methods above seem to work with you pet, ask you veterninarian about medications that can help your pet stay calm during a storm.
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, many 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 pharmaceutical fix-all.
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Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic
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