By Andrea Lin/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine
When summer thunderstorms roll in, some pets dive for cover. If your dog or cat is among those terrified by storms or other sudden, loud noises, such as fireworks, there are steps you can take to help reduce your pet's anxiety.
According to Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian pursuing board certification by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the reason pets are scared of thunderstorms isn't always clear.
One study found that a traumatic experience linked to noise was the likely origin of noise sensitivity in about a third of pets with these phobias. Other factors that may contribute to noise sensitivities include chronic stress, genetics, neurochemical imbalances and a change in hearing.
Practicing at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, Ballantyne offers behavior consultations to help pets with phobias and other behavioral issues.
She says it is perfectly normal for a pet to be scared by the loud noises and flashes the first time the pet experiences a thunderstorm or fireworks. A pet might react defensively to these high-decibel noises because they probably hurt the pet's ears, they lack a regular pattern and it's difficult to figure out where they are coming from.
It isn't normal, however, if the animal does not get used to storms, and each thunderstorm is as terrifying as the previous one.
Unfortunately, thunderstorms are common, and these frequent stressors can reduce a pet's quality of life. Addressing your pet's fears is important for the sake of the pet — not to mention the household objects sometimes destroyed by frightened pets.
Ballantyne suggests several measures that may help noise-sensitive pets feel a little safer and less frightened during a thunderstorm.
"First, try to make a safe place where your pet can go," she said. "An interior room with no windows is ideal because it is more sheltered from noise and the flashes of light. Avoid crating your pet unless the pet already feels that the crate is a safe place."
When pets are already hiding, don't force them out: that can scare and stress them more. Playing music or increasing the white noise in the house can decrease the perceived amount of noise from the storm.
Your behavior around your pet also plays an important role in managing the pet's anxiety during a storm. You should avoid either comforting or punishing the pet, and you should stay calm to avoid increasing the pet's anxiety.
If your dog isn't too scared, you can try to play with him. Interactive toys, such as a Kong filled with food, can help as well if he is willing to eat.
A pheromone spray for dogs called DAP helps reduce anxiety in some dogs. It can be sprayed on a bandana and tied around the pet's neck during a storm.
Ballantyne acknowledges that noise sensitivities can be hard for owners to manage. Sometimes you can do everything right and your pet is still scared of the storms.
"Don't hesitate to ask your veterinarian for help," Ballantyne said. "If nothing else is working, your veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety medication to augment the behavior modification plan."
Don't forget that a pet that is scared of thunderstorms will likely have a similar reaction to fireworks. These pets should be given a safe place to hide during the celebration and should never be taken to watch fireworks.
An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, email@example.com.