Managing Your Dog's Storm Phobia
As pet parents, we often recognise when our pet is displaying signs of stress and anxiety. A common trigger is the summer thunderstorm, leading to all sorts of trembling, pacing, salivating, hiding and destructive behaviour.
So what actually is a phobia and why do they develop in our pets?
A phobia is a markedly exaggerated irrational response to a stimulus. They develop from fears, and therefore most likely have a survival benefit for the animal. For example, it's a good thing to fear snakes but it's not good to be phobic of them. The stimulus that triggers a phobic response is often innocuous, as is the case with storm phobias and may be related to a change in barometric pressure or small rain showers.
Some common signs that your dog may be feeling anxious include:
- Licking lips
- Shaking or trembling
- Refusing to eat
- Continuously moving around
- Destroying furniture
- Urinating in an inappropriate place
How can we help our precious pets when they suffer from storm phobias? Behavioural issues including phobias in pets are complex and unfortunately, there's no quick fix. This means that in most cases, we need to combine a variety of techniques.
1. Predicting the Storm
Monitoring weather websites and apps during the storm season can allow you to predict to some degree the risky times for your dog. In preparation, you can bring them inside and into a safe area where they can't injure themselves. Ideally, this safe haven is a quiet, darkened room with no sharp objects or furniture that may cause injury. If your dog has a particular area they choose to go to during these times, it's best to allow them to do so as long as it's safe.
2. Calming Aids
Predicting the storm can also allow you to administer certain calming aids and apply body wraps well in advance, giving your pooch adequate time to settle prior to the onset of the storm. ThunderShirts and Anxiety Wraps work by applying gentle constant pressure to the sides of the torso, helping to relieve stress and reduce fearfulness. This concept is similar to 'swaddling', the art of snugly wrapping a baby in a blanket for warmth and security. These body wraps are safe and easy to use, with a range of sizes to suit all dogs.
There are also a range of nutraceuticals which may have a calming role for dogs who experience storm phobias. Chamomile, available as an easy to administer oral liquid, is ideally given at least 30 minutes prior to the onset of the storm. You may have also heard of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is thought to contribute to a sense of well being and happiness in both animals and people. Many anti-anxiety drugs that veterinarians prescribe for dogs alter Serotonin levels for this very reason. Interestingly, the precursor to Serotonin has been used in animals to assist with behavioural and anxiety disorders and may also have a role in storm phobias. PAW Blackmore's Complete Calm Chews contains this precursor, Tryptophan, as well as a combination of B vitamins and nutrients which can be used long-term on a daily basis in pets.
Pheromones are chemical substances that are produced and released into the environment by an animal. These pheromones are unique to each species of animal and play a role in establishing feelings of wellbeing and emotional stability.
Let's take a look at DAP, the dog appeasing pheromone. Female dogs release this pheromone derived from the mammary glands soon after they give birth to help calm her puppies. A synthetic version, called Adaptil is safe, non-sedating and available in both a collar and diffuser formulation. The collar version must fit snug to the skin as body heat causes it to activate. Because the collar stays with the dog all the time, this is a good option for dogs who experience anxiety in multiple situations. The diffuser is ideal for creating a safe location such as a crate or to apply to bedding. It works quickly as soon as the alcohol evaporates and persists for a few hours.
4. Behaviour Modification Techniques
To prepare for the storm season it's also a good idea to start with some basic calming or relaxation training. Dogs adapt very well to a set routine so consistency is key. So what does this involve? Firstly, find a good comfy spot that your dog associates with such as their own bed. Ideally have this placed in their safe haven as mentioned above. Each day, ask your dog to go to their bed and sit. When they do this correctly and calmly, immediately reward them. This may be a treat, a toy or even gentle patting. Perform this calming training a couple of times each day, and you can then use this during a storm so they can be rewarded for remaining calm.
There are also two specific techniques that can be used in conjunction with the above strategies. The first is called Desensitization.. This involves exposing your pet to the scary stimulus at a very low level so that they don't react. For example, if your dog reacts to thunder, you can play a Thunder CD firstly at a very soft level. Gradually over time, increase the intensity as they display an ability to cope. It's important to note that some dogs will have multiple trigger stimuli, complicating the behavioural modification process. For example, some dogs may react to barometric pressure changes as well as thunder and lightning. In these cases, desensitization unfortunately won't be as effective.
The second behavioural modification technique is called Counter Conditioning. This technique involves changing your dog's response to the phobia. For example, playing with your dog or feeding them treats while they are subjected to very low levels of the scary stimulus. This results in 'pairing' of the sound of the thunder and treats/playtime. Similar to desensitisation, the intensity of the sound can be gradually increased over time. It is important to never punish them if they do display fearful behaviour during this time as this will only exacerbate the problem.
5. A Word On Medications
There is certainly a place for prescription medication in some cases of storm phobia so it's always recommended to seek veterinary advice for your pet. These medications will need to be administered at least an hour prior to the storm to be most effective. If your veterinarian determines that your pet's storm phobia may be related to other behavioural issues, they may also prescribe a daily anti-anxiety medication.
Dr Kim is one of our resident Pet Circle Veterinarians. When Kim isn't sharing her pet care knowledge at Pet Circle, she enjoys travelling, spending time at the beach, and teaching her Border Collie, Louisiana "Lou" new tricks!
Kim suggests to read:
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