It is spring! Spring comes with many great things…and others that are not as great. Some of those “not great” spring features are thunderstorms.
Lots of animals are afraid of thunder. We are fairly sure that the sound is what triggers the fear, but some believe that barometric pressure and other features associated with storms may also elicit fear. An animal has learned that storms are unpleasant and for certain pets, a genetic tendency to develop phobias is already present.
Fear is a natural response to a threatening situation and thunder can seem threatening to all of us. Plain old fear becomes classified as anxiety when it becomes maladaptive (damages the life quality for the sufferer).
Some pets learn that storms are scary and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy- the animal thinks it is going to storm and starts to become afraid. The fear itself is uncomfortable and further adds to the anticipation of the storm. It is a vicious cycle. It is smart for an animal that lives in the wild to be wary of storms or any other loud sound, but your pet can start to fear just feeling afraid and it just keeps spiraling down to become a phobia.
Certain chemicals in the brain have been linked to maladaptive anxiety for many species, including dogs and humans. The hormone, cortisol has been associated with feelings of stress. The cortisol levels in blood and saliva are measurable in a lab setting to help understand the pathology of stress. 1
It is harder to define anxiety for our pets because they cannot answer questions about their feelings, but most pet lovers who have experienced thunderstorm anxiety are well aware of its effects.
Animals that are experiencing thunderstorm anxiety will sometimes vocalize, eliminate, salivate, tremble and/or hide. The signs can escalate to the point where the pet risks injuring him(her)self.
There are some things that you can do to help if you think that your pet has a thunderstorm phobia.
A Safe Place
Give your pet somewhere to go that is protected and safe, like a covered crate or a basement that insulates him/her from the sights and sounds of the storm. You might choose to play music or white noise to stop the spiral of sounds causing fear and fear of fear taking hold. Don’t force your pet into the “safe place” because then it may not seem safe at all. Be aware that some animals become more frightened if they are confined, so he/she should be able to choose whether or not to stay there.
The chance to make good choices
Give your pet an opportunity to put his brain on the right road. Ask him/her to come, sit, stay or do other tricks that he/she knows. (You might need to practice ahead of time) Promptly reward him/her with a high value treat. If the brain pathways switch away from fear leading to more fear and onto doing things that get positive reinforcement, then it is a much better situation for him/her. Meanwhile ignore anxious behavior and stay on track. If you console and cajole the fear, he/she may believe that you are also afraid and it will not help.
Other things to try
Some pets respond well to the addition of tight fitting garments, like when you swaddle a baby. There are many brands that you can try or you can fashion one from some of your old t shirts, etc. Some people swear by desensitization during calm times with a music track that is recorded of a storm. Start with the volume and increase it over several months. Because it is only the sound and not the other frightening features, it might not be as effective as you would hope, but is worth a shot.
Your veterinarian is an excellent resource to help you desensitize your pet from the phobia. There are medications and behavior modification programs to try. There isn’t a quick fix no matter what, but with your veterinarian’s help, you and your pet can weather the storms!
1. J Vet Sci. 2015 Dec 8. [Epub ahead of print]Evaluation of effects of olfactory and auditory stimulation on separation anxiety by salivary cortisol measurement in dogs. Shin YJ, Shin NS.