Updated: Nov 30
None of us enjoys seeing our loved ones distressed and scared. It can be difficult and heartbreaking to watch: Even before the first clap of thunder, otherwise happy dogs can start to pant, shiver, pace and hide in small spaces. Even worse, they can chew through walls, claw at furniture or smash through doors and windows as their panic escalates.
Storm phobias and anxiety is real and, unfortunately, not uncommon. But why does storm phobia happen? What can be done about storm phobia in dogs?
Understanding the triggers
Most owners report that their dog will know a storm is imminent before they do. Dogs are extremely perceptive. We suspect that dogs are set off by changes in wind, barometric pressure and low-frequency rumbles which are imperceptible by humans. This makes early intervention difficult as our animals often know there is a storm coming before we do.
So what to do? There’s no easy fix, and it can be difficult to treat; however, there are lots of tools to help your dog during storm season.
Tips to reduce storm anxiety
Give your dog a safe space
Just like us snuggling under a blanket, dogs will feel safer in places they associate with comfort and love. This could be anywhere; let your dog decide by providing them with options such as an open crate, a quiet room inside or a bathroom. Let them come and go freely; confinement can be comforting but only if they have chosen to be there. Just like us, they can become more distressed if they feel trapped.
Providing white noise such as the radio, television, or the fan can help drown out some of the storm phobia noise triggers.
Reward calm behaviour all year-round
Practising calm behaviour when there isn’t a storm can help provide focus when there is.
What is calm behaviour? In an awake dog, they will display some of the following characteristics:
Is physically close to you.
Has all four feet on the floor (sitting, laying down, or standing are all acceptable positions).
Is choosing to remain with you and are relaxed.
It is keeping its paws and tongue to itself.
Is quiet and is not staring intently at you.
During the year when your dog is exhibiting calm, relaxed behaviour for at least 1 minute. Reward this by leisurely reaching for a treat and calmly delivering it to your dog. Repeat following another minute (minimum) of calm behaviour. If even a calm delivery of a food reward excites your dog and brings them “out of calm” – cease food rewards and use gentle stroking and quiet praise to reward calm behaviour.
During the storm, provide treats or your dog’s favourite toy to distract them with something positive. We never want to scold or reprimand them while they are anxious, as this can exacerbate their fear.
Some dogs respond well to the various capes and wraps that are commercially available. Most evidence supporting these products is anecdotal, however.
A word of caution. As storm season in Queensland is during our hot, humid summers, we don’t generally advise the use of these products unless strictly supervised due to the risk of overheating, especially in our squishy nosed dog breeds.
Pheromone products can help dogs with noise and storm anxiety. However, again scientific evidence supporting these products is weak. Products containing a synthetic analogue of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) are advertised to help provide reassurance and comfort to puppies and dogs of all ages. There is a diffuser and collar option that is effective for 3 to 4 weeks and should be used for the duration of storm season for maximum response.
Call us for advice
Sometimes in cases of high anxiety, dogs can really benefit from medication. In severe cases, medication may be required all storm season to reduce anxiety before it occurs, and in others, it is enough to give the dog their medication the morning of a predicted storm. Unfortunately, not everyone can race home from work at a moment’s notice to give their dog medication. This is why it is still better to give medication and a storm not occur than to be trying to give it after the anxiety has set in.
At the University of Georgia, veterinarians found that 30 out of 32 dogs with storm phobia showed significant improvement when given medication combined with behaviour modification and desensitization in a 2003 study.
As always, Goodna Vet is here to help.
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