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.