It's a scenario many pet parents are all too familiar with: As soon as the clouds thicken and the wind starts blowing outside, our pets start acting panicky. While some simply pace, lick or cling close beside us for comfort, other pets suffer much more severe symptoms of thunderstorm phobias. Frightened dogs have clawed their way through doors and cages -- injuring their paws in the process -- and cats can seek shelter in hazardous hiding places, like washing machines, with disastrous results.
When furry friends get nervous, we tend to do what comes naturally to us: try to comfort them and calm their anxiety. But studies have shown that attempting to allay pets' fears by holding or stroking them has no significant effect on the stress hormone cortisol, which can spike to three times its normal level during storms.
With the weather in Philadelphia being stormy of late, and our attentions turned to our upcoming "Hear No Evil" issue of fetch!, noise phobias and thunderstorm anxiety have been hot topics at the office. And it is not just thunder giving furry friends a fright. Sirens, doorbells, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles, wind, airplanes and of course, fireworks, all top the list, too.
It seems everyone has a strategy for dealing with jumpy pups and cowering cats, but the best advice comes courtesy of our resident vets. Here are some of their top tips for keeping pets calm during the thundering storms of summer:
Duck and Cover
If your dog or cat tries to hide during thunderstorms, be sure to provide a safe place like a crate or closet for them and make sure it is accessible at all times, in case you are not home for the storm. Some pets seem to find being in a bathroom (even in the tub) comforting, possibly because tiled or porcelain surfaces cut down on the electricity in the air. When storms are imminent, put your pet in his "safe" place with a favorite toy or treat to help distract him from sounds outside. If the space is within view of a window, draw the shades so your pet can't see lightning or trees swaying, which can contribute to their panic.
Music to Their Ears
If you know a storm is coming, you can try playing loud, slow-tempo classical music with the high bass frequencies turned up and the treble turned down to mask some of the noise (classical music has been shown to have a calming effect on pets). But before storm season gets into full swing, you can also use your stereo to start addressing the noise phobia itself, so your pet is better equipped to handle thunder when it rumbles. Try using a CD of thunder noises to gradually desensitize your dog or cat to the din. Start by sitting together calmly, and turn up the volume just a bit. Watch for signs of stress behaviors like licking, averted glances or trembling. You want to find the earliest noise level that creates stress, and immediately counter with food rewards. Practice for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, and repeat daily, gradually increasing the volume until your pet can tolerate the excessive noise while still staying relaxed.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
When dealing with an anxious pet, it is important to remember that he or she will both read and feed off of your energy during times of stress, so staying calm, patient and positive is key to keeping pets comforted. Never scold, yell at or otherwise punish a frightened animal: Your reaction will only worsen their fear. If your pet is destructive or has an accident inside during a storm, clean it up with little fanfare. Limit visitors to your house, as the commotion of comings and goings can contribute to anxiety, and even make pets more likely to react aggressively or bolt for the door. If you have children, do not let them scream or run around during storms. Your goal should be to make your home as peaceful and soothing as possible to help your pet deal with the disturbance outside.
Embrace Mother Nature
Natural remedies like pheromone therapy and nutraceuticals like melatonin can be a big help for pets in distress, but don't begin any type of homeopathic regimen without talking to your vet first. Also, keep in mind that natural remedies work best when used in conjunction with behavior modification, so buying flower essences or DAP collars will do little good unless you're doing the rest of the legwork, too. It may take a few tries to settle on the right remedy for your pet, but once you find what works, non-pharmaceutical solutions can produce promising results. Your vet will be able to recommend an appropriate product, dosage and timing to suit your individual pet.
The fun of summer doesn't have to come screeching (or booming) to a halt just because of a few storm clouds. Put a plan in place to pacify panicky pets, and you'll be enjoying sunny skies again in no time.