Does your pet have a storm phobia?

“What other people and dogs do around them will influence their behaviour”

What is it?

A phobia is an extremely strong dislike or fear of someone or something, this fear is an irrational response. Some pets have a general noise phobia which includes storm phobia, other pets may get anxious before the storm arrives or some may be worried during thunder and lighting only.

Why does it occur?

We do not know all the causes of phobias in dogs, but we do know genetics plays a role. For example, herding breeds are predisposed to thunderstorm phobias. Your pet’s environment also contributes to development of a phobia. They may have had negative experiences with a stimulus or exposure to others (pets or people) who are fearful of the stimulus. Either or both of these circumstances can create or reinforce a phobia in your pet. Dogs that are deprived of social and environmental exposure until 14 weeks of age may become habitually fearful.

Signs

Storms are often associated with loud noises, uncomfortable conditions, wind, rain, hail, atmospheric changes, different smells, thunder and lightning. Any one or more of these changes can be the trigger for fear in your pet. When they are experiencing a phobia, normal bodily changes occur. These are the Freeze, Flight and Fight response. For dogs they include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Drooling
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Panting
  • Pacing
  • Trembling
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Inappropriate elimination
  • Barking/Growling/Grunting
  • Unprovoked attacking
  • Hyperactivity
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Excessive salivation
  • Yawning/Lip licking
  • Muscle rigidity/trembling
  • Escaping

If your pet is experiencing any of the above signs then they have an extreme reaction to the phobia. Phobias generally get worse over time because when they are experiencing a severe fear response and panicking, learning cannot take place.

Your dog’s fear may initially appear mild and not a problem. When it is left un-managed the behaviours escalate and worsen. Unfortunately, some owners may not notice their dog’s fearful behaviour until they escape the yard or destroy a door to the house.

How you can help

Different levels of fear and different triggers require different management techniques. We can break it down into 3 levels of fear:

  1. Before a negative connection is made (puppies or first storm)
  2. When the pet is ‘worried’ only
  3. Storm phobia

Before the negative connection is made with storms

Mostly puppies or dogs who have not experienced their first storm will be in this group. The first time they hear a storm or loud noise, you can influence them to make a positive connection by giving rewards or distracting them with food and fun games. When you add food to a new situation, it is more likely for a positive connection to be made. Playing a thunderstorm CD or phone app when they are puppies may be useful as you can control their first encounter with the noise of the storm. When desensitising dogs to loud noises or storms, increase the sound only if they still remain happy and comfortable. If their behaviour becomes worried, then turn the sound down and continue to pair it with happy behaviour. This process has to have only positive connections for it to be successful.

‘Worried’ Pets

This is when they are unsure of how to react and are showing signs of stress and uncertainty. What other people and dogs do around them will influence their behaviour. Below are some tips:

  • Remaining calm and happy
  • Distract with yummy food (bones or chicken in a kong) makes the situation less about the storm and more about relaxed behaviour and eating.
  • Play loud music or have the TV louder to dull the storm sound (this will help only if it doesn’t make the pet more worried)
  • Close curtains and blinds, it’s easier for pets to deal with one challange at a time
  • Make sure doors are closed properly so they cannot slam with wind.
  • If your pet wants to hide, let them hide. Try to avoid them being on your laps for security, as they need to find comfort by themselves as you may not always be present.
  • If your pet is crate trained, use the crate and try a blanket over the top. Do not lock them in the crate.
  • Consider a ThunderShirt or making one yourself. This applies pressure to their torso, giving them a big hug which has a calming effect on your dog. Do not leave it on unsupervised
  • Try ADAPTIL – this is the dog appeasing pheromone, if reduces stress and anxiety which means they can build positive experiences.

Management of a storm-phobic dog

Use all the above advice for worried pets. They may not respond to food or distraction as they are feeling a fear response (Flight, Fight, Freeze). When they are in this survival response, the aim is to make them feel as comfortable as possible to reduce fear. Give pat’s, hugs or reassurance as it will NOT encourage their behaviour, it will hopefully make them less fearful, which is a good thing.

An option is to try to train using counter-conditioning, this involves consistently and repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one until your dog makes a positive association. For example, each time your dog hears a thunderclap, offer him a treat. The goal is to condition him to associate a treat with the sound of thunder. This will only work if the pet is not experiencing fear, which means you need to first practice when there are no storms, before doing it during storms.

Desensitisation can be used as well, this is slowly increasing the stimulus over a period of time while the behaviour remains calm and non-reactive. Start with the noise playing in a different room where it can be barely heard, if the pet doesnt respond with anxiety or fear, the intensity can be increased slowly until the pet no longer responds to the noise. This process takes patience and time (weeks to months) It is possible for this to be done incorrectly or too quickly which can result in a worsening of the fearful behaviour to the sounds. Counter-conditioning and desensitisation work best together.

Medication may be needed to reduce the anxiety during the storm or while behaviour modification training is occurring (desensitisation and counter-conditioning). This can be long-term (some storm-phobic patients have other phobias or anxieties) or given before the storm starts and before they become anxious. This medication is prescription only, which means you need to talk to your veterinarian about your pet and whether medication is needed.

Plan ahead

Look ahead for predictions of thunderstorms. The following websites are useful:

Bureau of Meteorology http://www.bom.gov.au/

Willy Weather http://www.willyweather.com.au/

Weatherzone http://www.weatherzone.com.au/

About the author: Megan Reilly

Megan is a Veterinary Nurse Technician - the highest qualification available to Veterinary Nurses in Australia, Megan has a fun loving spirit and brings a positive energy to Heights Pet Hospital. She is a talented nurse who has a love for all patients and is continuously updating our processes and procedures, always finding a better or more effective way. She has been at the hospital since its opening in 2011 and in the veterinary industry since 2000, starting out as a kennel hand and then completing veterinary nursing cert IV in 2006. She has also undertaken additional study, gaining her qualification as a Veterinary Nurse Technician in 2015. Megan runs our puppy school classes and has a special interest in canine behaviour. She continues to give back to the industry with her dedication to training new veterinary nurses and work experience students. Megan has Trevor, a black domestic short hair cat with a penchant for extravagant bow ties! and Howard, a fiesty Border-Terrier.

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