Better behavior with Steve Dale: Helping dogs with storm anxiety

Thunder booms, and some dogs panic. Here's how to help your veterinary clients' pets cope.
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Sep 10, 2012

In this exclusive monthly column, Steve Dale, CABC, radio host, syndicated newspaper columnist, and contributing editor at USA Weekend, will give veterinary team members tips on helping patients with behavior issues and talking to clients about these sometimes tough topics. This month’s entry? Dogs and thunderstorms.

Some dogs are better at forecasting the weather than the National Weather Service. They know a storm is approaching before we do. These dogs pace, salivate, tremble, whine, and become Velcro dogs (stick to you like glue) even when the storm is an hour away or more. And it might get worse when the storm actually arrives. Some dogs may forget their house training and even self-mutilate. Other dogs don’t do any of these things. They just want to hide, perhaps under a bed, in a corner, in a closet, or in the bathtub.

Some clients feel that a storm-frightened dog will learn over time that the storm really won’t hurt her and she’ll get better on her own. That’s not usually how it works, unfortunately. When low-level anxiety is left alone, dogs actually seem to worsen—and that reasonably low level of anxiety is exactly when intervention is most likely to help before the anxiety becomes more severe. Early treatment is better. Of course, what can be done to help these suffering pets depends on the severity of the behaviors.

For milder anxiety
Dogs’ behavior may take a turn for the worse even as a storm approaches. They can learn to associate the oncoming storm with changes in barometric pressure, maybe sensing an approaching storm front in other ways we don’t understand. You know sometimes how you can “smell” an oncoming storm? Of course, anything we can smell—a dog can. When the storms are near, dogs are not only affected by the sound of thunder, but also the sight of lightning, perhaps even the electricity in the air, and of course the sound of the rain itself.

For dogs with mild anxiety—who respond by hiding and don’t seem panicked, just anxious—veterinary team members may suggest proactively helping the dog to get over its fear. Sometimes the simplest solution can help, which is positive reinforcement during the thunderstorm. Here’s how it works: Take the dog into a basement, close the window shades (so hopefully the dog can’t see the lightning), pump up the music (to drown out storm sounds) and distract the pup with a jolly game. Kids are great at this, and moms and dads may appreciate the kids being entertained too. The dog can play whatever (safe) games the dog and children enjoy. This method also serves as desensitization and counter-conditioning for dogs who play along. When the next few storms come along, the dog starts to associate fearful weather with fun.

One problem with this approach is that many dogs are too fearful to even think about play. And what if the client isn’t always home as storms approach? Say, the jollying approach worked and after two more storms the dog is more easily distracted each time and seems a tad less anxious. But if no one’s home during the next thunderstorm, the client and the pet may be back to square one.

Your thunderstorm anxiety toolbox
For many dogs, a combination of the following storm anxiety tools may be useful. These are not miracle cures, but they lessen the level of anxiety in dogs whose level of anxiety is so high that any one won’t work. Note that what works for one dog may or may not help another.

  • Adaptil. This is an analog of a calming pheromone found in lactating dogs and the intent is to calm anxious dogs. It’s available in diffuser or collar.
  • Anxiety Wrap. A vest-like “suit” that fits around the dog and uses acupressure to calm. The Anxiety Wrap can also be used for separation anxiety, anxiety in the car, and other anxiety-related issues.
  • Anxitane. L-Theanine in a chewable tab can help counter anxiety in dogs and cats. The idea is to offer the chewable before the dog becomes anxious.
  • Storm Defender. A red cape for dogs to wear to reduce anxiety. The cape has a special metallic lining that discharges a dog's fur and protects from the static charge buildup that can bother dogs.
  • Thundershirt. Uses gentle, constant pressure to calm a dog. Could be used for anxiety, general fearfulness, barking, and more.

For dogs with more intense anxiety, veterinarians can consider anti-anxiety medication. Sleepiness can be a side effect, but what’s better—being a little drowsy or absolutely terrified? And with the right dose, a dog should not appear doped up. For more on appropriate anxiety pharmacological choices, resources include:

Steve Dale, CABC, writes a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column for Tribune Media services and is a contributing editor at USA Weekend. He is also host of two nationally syndicated radio shows, “Steve Dale's Pet World” and “The Pet Minute,” and is heard on WGN Radio. Catch him live at CVC San Diego Dec. 5-9. To learn more, visit dvm360.com/cvc. And share your questions or comments at dvm360.com/community.