There are a lot of animals that have a fear of storms (and other loud noises). It is a very common consultation topic in the warmer months of the year. Phobic animals can suffer greatly, for protracted periods of time, and often repeatedly during any given week when storms are active in the region. Some animals have developed coping mechanisms, whilst others have not, or their fear outgrows their ability to self-soothe and they move into overt anxiety or panic.
Why does my animal fear storms?
Dogs and cats have vastly more acute hearing than us humans, meaning they hear things that we do not. They also hear things differently to us so we don’t know what thunder and lightning sounds like to them. Some breeds appear particularly noise-sensitive, such as the Border Collie, though any breed can develop a noise phobia. They may inherently dislike the sound of storms (it is scary to them), or they may have had a profoundly fearful experience with a particularly intense storm at one time which has left them with a fear of future storms. Storms are also unpredictable in nature, and cannot be controlled which means your pet knows they cannot know what to expect each time a storm comes over.
Sometimes a pet’s perception changes with age-related cognitive decline, or changes in hearing and/or sight and this can make them begin to fear storms or other stimuli as they can’t monitor them as well as they used to be able to.
Why does my pet get so anxious before the storm is even here!?
Animals suffering from fear of storms show increasing anxiety as the storm approaches. This means that some animals will begin pacing, panting, seeking to hide or escape, seeking proximity or comfort from owners, or depressed behaviour sometimes hours before the storm is actually obvious to us. This is because these animals can generalise the impending signs of storms such as wind, clouds in the sky, a darkening sky, or a drop in barometric pressure. These signs can begin to herald that a storm is coming so when your pet sees these things they begin to expect an impending event that scares them.
What signs indicate my pet might have a storm phobia?
Pets, just like people, have different coping mechanisms for different situations. Some pets are happy and able to cope with just company (but exhibit panic or escape without it), some seek shelter under houses, in kennels, or in cupboards, under beds or small rooms of the house (cats in particular will hide deep in the house), and some have such a strong fear that their coping mechanisms are overwhelmed and they begin to exhibit signs of strong emotional stress, or panic. These signs include dilated pupils, drooling, panting, racing heart rate, pacing or repetitive movements, through to panic episodes where pets will seek to escape and this may present as jumping fences, jumping through windows, or destruction as they try to get in to a particular area, or out of a particular area. These pets are unresponsive to recall, can be very reactive if caught by concerned citizens and aren’t thinking at all about what they are doing: they are just trying to get away!! The very rare pet will exhibit depression as a sign of anxiety and will seek an area (often a mat or bed) and be unresponsive to interaction until the event is over.
Why is this anxiety important to control?
Anxiety rarely gets better, and in fact often worsens with repeat exposure without a way to mentally cope with the fear being felt. This means your pet is very unlikely to ‘grow out of it’, and is in fact likely to get worse with age. Besides the obvious fact that experiencing high levels of fear for hours on end is distressing to say the least, when pets panic and escape they are at a high risk of injury owing to being hit by cars as they flee, getting hung in fences as they try to jump them, or becoming lost or injured far from home.
What can I do for my pet at home?
If your pet has a ‘safe place’ that they go to during storms then let them go there. If it helps them cope then it is good. If they seek areas that are sheltered, or try to get inside during storms then providing a den or kennel, or just installing a door into the laundry where they can be inside can be enough. If your pet prefers your company then have some time on the couch with them. You don’t have to fuss over them, but providing comfort and quiet reassurance can be helpful. And no, you can’t reward fear so withholding comfort is not indicated when your pet is fearful, nor is flooding them by making them experience the storm with no ability to retreat or hide (and is in fact harmful and cruel). It does not ‘make them get used to it’ and has a higher chance of worsening the phobia and inducing panic and injury. If your pet can be distracted you can engage in positive play or basic obedience which is fun, positive and can serve to show your pet that storms can be more fun than they thought! This is the most effective way to change the way your pet feels about storms, and reduce their anxiety over time.
What if my pet is really scared and nothing I do helps them, or I can’t be home with them every time?
If your pet has a severe phobia, or providing coping mechanisms is difficult because of work/lifestyle or commitments then medication is definitely indicated. Medications used are often situation and relatively short acting, though most can be used long term. Some can cause dependency over time so if you blanket medicate over the stormy months then you will need to wean your pet off at the end. Medication is not a bad thing: if it reduces your pet’s fear, prevents them panicking and hurting themselves, and allows them to engage in other coping strategies then it can be good for everyone’s stress levels. Sometimes we need to try a couple of different things to find what suits your pet best, or even combine medications for those really stormy days, or really intense storms.
What else should I know?
Studies have indicated that there is a positive correlation between pets with noise phobias and Separation Anxiety. This means that quite often, both these anxieties are present in the same pet so if your pet doesn’t cope when you are not there, watch to see if they also have a fear of storms or noises. Similarly, if your pet has storm phobias, ask your neighbours if the dog barks all day or cries when you leave the house (or do you come home to destruction of objects every day?). There is also a positive correlation with noise phobias and pain levels, especially in older dogs so it’s well worth having them checked out for arthritis, or other sources of pain that could be worsening their anxiety or making them more reactive.
If your pet has a storm or noise phobia then call us for a consultation on what could be best to help your pet cope. We will go through what will work with your lifestyle and commitments, and how to best help your pet through environmental management and/or medications. We will also discuss whether your pet has other concurrent conditions that may be contributing to their phobias so that we can provide the best holistic approach for the best outcome.