By Patty Khuly VMD, Special for USA TODAY (updated 6/10/2010)
It's the same thing every year. The summer storms ... they stress our dogs unduly. We vets call it "storm phobia." You call it your worst nightmare. (The howling, the hiding, the destruction!)
Either way, we all want the same thing: a calmer dog that doesn't have to suffer the psychological damage done by booming thunder, wicked lightning and plummeting barometric pressures.
And it's not just their psyche (and ours!) at risk. We all know that dogs are capable of doing serious damage to themselves during stormy times of the year. Fractured claws, lacerations, broken teeth and bruises are but a few consequences.
So how do you handle thunderstorm phobia? Here are my suggestions:
1. Handle it early on in your dog's life
Does your dog merely quake and quiver under the bed when it storms outside? Just because he doesn't absolutely freak doesn't mean he's not suffering. Since storm phobia is considered a progressive behavioral disease, signs like this should not be ignored. Each successive thunderstorm season is likely to bring out ever-worsening signs of fear. It's time to take action — NOW.
2. Don't heed advice to let her "sweat it out" or not to "baby" her.
I've heard many pet owners explain that they don't offer any consolation to their pets because they don't want to reinforce the "negative behavior" brought on by a thunderstorm. But a severe thunderstorm is no time to tell your dog to "buck up and get strong." Fears like this are irrational (after all, she's safe indoors). Your dog won't get it when you punish her for freaking out. Indeed, it'll likely make her anxiety worse. Providing a positive or distracting stimulus is more likely to calm her down.
3. Offer treats, cuddlings and other good stuff when storms happen.
This method is best employed before the phobia sets in –– as pups. Associating loud booms with treats is never a bad thing, right?
4. Let him hide — in a crate.
Hiding (as in a cave) is a natural psychological defense for dogs. Getting them used to a crate as pups has a tremendous influence on how comfortable they are when things scare them. Having a go-to place for relaxing or hiding away is an excellent approach, no matter what the fear.
5. Get him away from the noise, and compete with it.
Creating a comfy place (for the crate or elsewhere) in a room that's enclosed (like a closet or bathroom) may help a great deal. Adding in a loud radio or white noise machine can help, too. Or how about soothing, dog-calming music?
6. Counter the effects of electromagnetism.
Though it may sound like voodoo, your dog can also become sensitized to the electromagnetic radiation caused by lightning strikes. One great way to shield your dog from these potentially fear-provoking waves is to cover her crate with a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Another method involves clothing her in a commercially available "Storm Defender" cape that does the same work. If she hides under the bed, consider slipping a layer of aluminum foil between the box-spring and mattress.
7. Desensitize him.
Sometimes it's possible to allay the fears by using thunderstorm sound CDs when it's not raging outside. Play it at a low volume while plying him with positive stimuli (like treats and pettings). Increase the volume all the while, getting to those uncomfortable booming sounds over a period of weeks. It works well for some.
8. Ask your veterinarian about drugs.
Sure, there's nothing so unsavory as the need for drugs to relieve dogs of their fears, but recognize that some fears will not be amenable to any of these other ministrations without drugs. If that's the case, talk to your vet about it –– please. There are plenty of new approaches to drugs that don't result in a zonked-out dog, so please ask!
9. Natural therapies can work.
For severe sufferers, there's no doubt it'll be hard to ask a simple flower essence to do all the heavy lifting, but for milder cases, Bach flower extracts (as in Rescue Remedy), lavender oil (in a diffuser is best) and/or "Dog Appeasing Pheromone" (marketed as D.A.P. in a diffuser, spray or collar) can help.
10. Consider seeing a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
If nothing else works, your dog should not have to suffer. Seek out the advice of your veterinarian, and, if you've gone as far as you can with him/her, consider someone with unique training in these areas –– perhaps a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
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