Thunderstorm Anxiety in Your Pets

dog_and_cat_looking_scared

Few people are happy to endure the the sounds of a severe thunderstorm, complete with darkening skies, strong winds, flashes of lightning and crashing thunder.  Some become extremely anxious, and for some, the fear of thunderstorms turns into a full-blown phobia.

Some pets, especially dogs, are also affected by thunderstorm anxiety to varying degrees.  While some pets may tremble, whine, pace or hide under the bed during storms, in more severe cases, panicking dogs have been known to destroy furniture, jump through windows or otherwise harm themselves during storms.  In either case, this type of behavior is the sign of a very unhappy pet.

Fear is a normal response to a fear-inducing situation, whereas phobias are irrational, extreme reactions in which the fearful response is magnified to the point of dysfunction.  Behaviorists are not sure which part of the storm frightens pets the most – the lightning flashes and thunder, the winds blowing around the house or the sound of rain hitting the roof.  Some dogs even show signs of anxiety an hour or more before a storm hits, leading to the theory that they are reacting to changes in barometric pressure.

Many cats become nervous during storms and generally hide from the disturbance under beds or in dark, quiet corners.  Unlike dogs, they tend to not progress to the phobic stage – they simply wait out the storm in their safe place and come out of hiding when the storm has passed.

So what can you do to help your pet deal with thunderstorm anxiety?

Probably the best treatment is avoidance.  If there’s a place where your pet feels safe, be it a kennel or crate or a finished basement that is relatively light and sound proof, you can have your pet ride out the storm in his safe place.

Another option is desensitization.  This approach gradually retrains your pet by exposing her to gentle reminders of a thunderstorm such as a recording of distant thunder, and rewarding her for staying calm.  The idea is that over time, the response to the stimulus decreases. 

There are a number of natural remedies that work well for mild cases of thunderstorm anxiety.  My favorite is Rescue Remedy, a Bach Flower Essence blend.  There are other natural calming aids available, Holistic Pet Info offers a good selection along with some good advice on how to handle situations that cause stress for your pet.

It is important that you remain calm when your pet is afraid.  Our pets pick up on our emotions, and if we’re anxious, they’ll be anxious as well.  While it’s tempting to cuddle and comfort your pet during a storm, in your pet’s mind, this rewards the fearful behavior.  It’s much better to provide your pet with a safe, familiar place where he can ride out the storm.

In severe cases, a visit to your veterinarian is in order.  Your veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication to help keep your pet calm during storms.

Amber hates thunderstorms.  She chooses the shower stall in our small, windowless bathroom in the basement as her safe place during storms.  I’ve tried to sit with her during storms and comfort and reassure her, but she much prefers to be there by herself.  Once the storm passes, she comes back upstairs.  She would like to add that she particularly hates storms that come through during breakfast or dinner time.

14 Comments on Thunderstorm Anxiety in Your Pets

  1. Lina
    July 3, 2016 at 9:48 am (1 year ago)

    My cat is afraid of storms, but he actually likes to be comforted. I wonder if a thundershirt might work for him because of that. Anyway, he cries when it starts thundering, comes to me and wedges himself between me and the sofa’s arm, or sits in my lap. I keep one hand on him, still but not petting (which does seem to make him more nervous). He tenses when it thunders, but he’s okay. He also fears fireworks for the same reason, so I’m not looking forward to tomorrow when my neighbors will start setting fireworks off and continue for days.

    Speaking of dogs, my dad had a spaniel years ago that had an extreme thunder phobia. He tried putting her in her crate in a quiet room once, but she tore herself up trying to get out of the crate. When he took her to the vet for care and stitches, the vet didn’t believe she did that to herself because he’d never seen a dog so scared of storms that she’d hurt herself, and he accused my dad of hurting her. Well, he kept her overnight, and a storm came through while the office was closed. Again, she panicked and thrashed in her cage, and tore her wounds open. The vet apologized after that! My dad eventually found out it was best to let her run wild through the house during storms instead of trying to keep her restrained and calm. I think this was before psychiatric medications were prescribed to pets, or that might have helped, but I’m not surprised that dogs have thrown themselves through windows and such. Thank goodness cats aren’t so extreme!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 4, 2016 at 5:35 am (1 year ago)

      Wow, your dad’s dog sure was one of the most extreme cases of thunderstorm phobia I ever heard of, Lina.

      Reply
  2. mpnagy
    February 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm (6 years ago)

    Thundershirt just came out with thundershrt for cats. Works great… Their website is cats.thundershirt.com

    Reply
    • Thundershirts Work
      March 19, 2013 at 12:22 pm (5 years ago)

      Can’t verify how the Thundershirts work for cats (didn’t know they made them for cats till I read that comment), but I can tell you it has worked wonders for one of my dogs (my cat just hides in under the bed).

      Just not sure if I could get my cat to wear one.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        March 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm (5 years ago)

        I’ve heard lots of good feedback on the thundershirt from dog parents. I’m just not sure it would work for cats, because most cats don’t find being held closely or squeezed comforting. I’m willing to be convinced that it works, though!

        Reply
  3. Elizabeth
    April 1, 2011 at 10:23 am (6 years ago)

    yesterday, My kitten Marmalade had a terrible reaction to a thunderstorm. Iwas pretty anxious as tornadoes were forecast in the area and I am new to Florida. He lost control of his bladder on my bed and then he was making gurgling noises in his throat and was having trouble breathing. As soo as the storm calmed I rushed him to the vet who gave steroids, antihistamines and an antibiotic because he developed a fever. I brought him home but he was very poorly and zombie like probably from the drugs. This morning he seemed ok apart from one gagging episode.
    Anyone had the same reaction?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 1, 2011 at 10:29 am (6 years ago)

      I’m so sorry Marmalade was having such a rough time yesterday, Elizabeth. I’ve never heard of this kind of a reaction by a cat to a thunderstorm. I’m wondering whether what happened with him was just a very odd coincidence and would have happened even if there hadn’t been those terrible storms you had yesterday. I’m glad you immediately rushed him to the vet, and I’d keep a very close eye on him for the next few days.

      Please keep us posted and let us know how he is doing – lots of good wishes going out to him, and you, for a quick recovery!

      Reply
  4. Ingrid
    June 15, 2009 at 4:49 pm (8 years ago)

    Tammy, I hate storms, too – which is why I always find it difficult to remain calm during storms. It’s just as well that Amber prefers to be by herself in her safe place. She’d just be picking up on my anxiety.

    I hope you and Miss G are cuddled together and safely riding out the storm!

    Reply
  5. Tammy
    June 15, 2009 at 4:02 pm (8 years ago)

    I am terribly afraid of thunder myself. I know the root cause of the phobia, but I haven’t worked through it (as of yet anyway). We have four cats. Miss Girl is very afraid of thunder also. She comes to where we are when it’s thundering. We hang out together and “commiserate” about our fear! 🙂

    My Oscar cat knows I’m afraid and he usually comes to check on me. (It is starting to thunder here even as I type this. Think I’ll go cuddle with Miss G!)

    Reply
  6. Ingrid
    June 12, 2009 at 5:15 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks for providing the info on those capes, Anlina. While I can’t quite imagine a cat wanting to wear one of them, I could see where they could be effective for dog. Definitely an interesting possibility.

    Reply
  7. Anlina Sheng
    June 12, 2009 at 2:47 pm (8 years ago)

    There are also foil capes that you can buy for dogs that seem to be quite effective. I imagine if you had a cat that was extremely affected by storms, a small-dog sized one could be tried on the cat. http://www.stormdefender.com/

    I’ve heard you can make your own by layering, I think, tin foil between fabric or blankets.

    None of my cats have ever been distressed by storms. They all seem to not notice too much.

    Reply
  8. Ingrid
    June 11, 2009 at 4:13 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks for posting the link to your article, Diana!

    Reply
  9. Ark Lady
    June 11, 2009 at 2:25 pm (8 years ago)

    Glad to see another timely article on this topic. I wrote an extensive post on pet noise phobias as related to thunder and what products and strategies to consider.

    You might find it interesting to read so I include the link in my signature.

    Reply

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