Helping Pets with Thunderstorm Anxiety

April 23, 2014 in Aerowood Animal Hospital

Bad thunderstorm phobia is more common in dogs than in cats.  Dogs have been known to develop thunderstorm phobias after having lived several years with relatively normal reactions to thunderstorms.  Signs of excessive anxiety include hiding, trembling, whining, drooling, and pacing.  Signs of anxiety may appear 30 to 60 minutes before the storm manifests over your home.  While most people are interested in this subject simply because they want to make their pets feel better, for some families the concerns are more concrete.  Thunderstorm anxiety in dogs has been known to result in chewed furniture, torn drapes, broken windows, and more.

One easy solution is to make sure your dog or cat has a safe retreat. A soft, dark, warm place that the dog or cat can enter or exit at will can give them the peace they need to wait out the storm.  A place away from windows and noise is the best – think finished basement or under the bed.

Behavior modification is another option, but can be tricky.  In behavior modification or systematic desensitization therapy, you simulate for your pet the negative stimulus that is bothering your pet but at a very low level.  You might be able to do this with a soundtrack of a thunderstorm.  Tricky part number one: it’s hard to know exactly which stimuli is bothering your pet.  For instance, it could be the sudden noises, the constant sound of driving rain on the windows, the light changes, or even the electricity in the air.  While you are simulating the stimuli at a very low level, you reward your pet with treats, praise, and attention as long as your pet remains calm.  You gradually increase the intensity of the stimulation and only reward calm behavior.  Anxious behavior is basically ignored.  Tricky part number two of desensitization.  Behaviorists say that if you reward the dog during anxious feelings, you’re likely to reinforce the anxious behavior.  Theoretically, if you are attempting desensitization and reward your dog while failing to recognize signs of stress, you could make the behavior worse.  So be very empathetic toward your dog during this training and do your best to not reward your dog during a stressful reaction to your simulated storm.

Another interesting recommendation from behaviorists is that you, as the pet owner should not be terribly nurturing during thunderstorm phobia, as this is believed to reinforce the phobia.  That means no treats, no unusual attention, and no cuddling.  Definitely don’t punish your dog for thunderstorm anxiety either.  The behaviorists say, if you want to help your dog overcome thunderstorm anxiety, you should act normally and calmly around your dog, but find your dog a secure-feeling space to wait out the storm.

Finally, if all else fails, we have meds.  As a first line of treatment, we recommend environment and behavioral approaches plus constant pressure clothing.  If these don’t achieve the desired effect, we can prescribe anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications.  If you want individual guidance implementing any of these solutions, feel free to make an appointment.  We can talk about strategies, implementation, and when to use medications.


Thunderstorm Anxiety Behavior

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