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Relieving Storm-Related Anxiety in Dogs

Summer is still in full swing—time for barbecue, beaches, and, unfortunately, thunderstorms. Those of us with pets sensitive to thunder are always on the lookout for a way to ease their discomfort. As pet care professionals, groomers are often asked for solutions and remedies for this sort of anxiety, which begs the question—how can we help without overstepping the boundaries into practicing veterinary medicine without a license?

Scared Dog_1

Some dogs are made uncomfortable to the point of panic. Those dogs will benefit most by a recommendation to see a behaviorist or veterinarian, but dogs with a lesser degree of reactivity may be helped by various aids. Make the difference clear to your clients, and let them know that the aids you suggest are simply things that have worked for other people and that you are not diagnosing or treating a problem.

There are any number of ideas for helping your dog handle his reaction to thunder, ranging from seriously helpful to borderline ridiculous. A friend of mine swears a dog trainer told her to make noise louder than the thunder—she bangs her kitchen pots with a metal spoon for as long as the storm is local. I’m thinking there was a failure to communicate somewhere in there, but it’s a good example of how desperate we can be to alleviate the fears of our furry friends—we’ll try anything (I sometimes wonder if he got over the thunder problem but is now afraid of pots and pans).

Theories abound as to why dogs react to thunderstorms. Some people believe it is because the dog doesn’t know what it is. Others feel that the dog’s sensitive hearing is picking up subsonics—sound waves that are below the hearing threshold of humans, but that can often be felt even by us. Ever feel the thumping of a loud bass drum? It’s not particularly comfortable. Now, imagine that you don’t know what it is—I think that would be scary. Perhaps it’s the drop in barometric pressure that causes some dogs to be upset; it gives humans headaches, what might it be doing to the much larger nasal cavities in most dogs?

Lightening_3

However, it may not be the sound, at all. Lightning is created when a negative electrical charge rapidly heats up the surrounding air—some dogs may be sensitive to those negative ions. Some theorize that the negative static is felt more by dogs because their fur holds it and it is uncomfortable. Some dogs go into the bathroom and hide behind the toilet, under the sink, or even in the tub or sink.  Bathtubs, pipes, metal radiators, the car—perhaps the dog is seeking things that will ground them and alleviate the feeling of discomfort caused by a negative charge of static electricity.

Dogs that are sensitive to storms for whatever cause can exhibit the stress in many different ways, including:

  • panting
  • pacing
  • drooling
  • trembling
  • hovering or crowding their person or another pet
  • whining, howling, or barking
  • destructive behavior
  • housebreaking accidents, or loss of bowel or bladder control
  • self-harm—licking or chewing themselves, clawing/chewing out of an enclosure, or running through a window or door

 

With so many destructive and potentially dangerous behaviors resulting from thunderstorm discomfort and anxiety, many pet parents are left wondering what they can do to relieve their dog’s distress.

Space Blanket

Make sure he has a place to go that feels safe to him. The basement, a crate if he is used to being crated, any covered secure area. If his crate is wire, throw a cover or a sheet over it for added security. Or a metallic “space blanket” as it may help reduce negatively charged ions or electromagnetic waves. If he wants to go behind the couch or in the closet, let him if it makes him feel safer. Keep him safe—some dogs chew themselves, crates, doorjambs, or anything else they can get their paws on. Make sure he can’t hurt himself doing any of those things.

KARS_1

An anxiety wrap may help. Temple Grandin, an authority on humane and calm handling of animals, has proven that many animals relax when provided with a swaddling amount of pressure, almost like a portable hug. Some recommend using an Ace type bandage to wrap the dog’s torso, but the KONG® Anxiety-Reducing Shirt is a simpler way to accomplish that.  Tip: Don’t use once and stop if no large improvements are seen. Dogs must often get used to it, and while changes may not be seen immediately, most dogs will show improvement and calming effect by the fifth use. Make sure to try it on and get the dog accustomed to it well before using it during a storm, in order to prevent the dog associating it with a negative. Ensure that he/she is kept cool, as you are adding a layer that may make it a little more difficult to dissipate heat.

There are jackets with anti-static lining made of metallic fabric, or with a metallic coating (Storm Defender is the most popular anti-static jacket brand). The idea behind them is that they will discharge the static buildup—if static electricity is the problem, dogs may begin to learn that storms aren’t so bad after a couple of storms wearing one. You can also try spritzing the dog with a light grooming spray (I suggest ikaria) to reduce static buildup before and during a storm.

KONG Toy_1

Distraction is a favorite technique with some trainers, but it must be done at right time (the very beginning of the storm before the dog has become agitated is prime). A few rousing games of tug of war or fetch the ball may keep his mind off the storm. Try doing tricks (performing their repertoire for treats and praise is usually low stress for most dogs) or obedience with commands, if that is fun for you both. Be careful that you don’t “dilute” an obedience command by repeating it—if the dog does not respond to a known cue such as “sit” or “down”, this isn’t the method of alleviating tension for him. Each time you repeat a cue and the dog does not perform the desired behavior, you’ve made that cue optional, weakening it for future use. When using training or tricks as a distraction, make sure to use high value items as rewards (for instance, tasty and nutritious Wise Rewards® Functional Treats will have better distraction value than dry biscuits). Or just give him something to do to distract himself, like a KONG® Toy stuffed with his favorite treat, or a whole rawhide or marrow bone.

Woman and Dog

Stay calm. The owner’s demeanor can affect dogs’ attitude. Neither coddling nor correcting should be done excessively. The best approach is to remain matter of fact about it. A storm is a perfectly natural and normal occurrence, not something to be upset about—try to let calm behavior communicate that. Be empathic to the dog—if he gets reassurance from being near you, let him lean on you, or sit next to you on the couch. If the owner acts as though it’s a big deal, the dog is sure to buy into that.

Rescue Remedy is a very popular mix of Bach flower remedies designed for use in stressful situations, for humans or dogs. If you know a practitioner who can recommend the right ones, Bach flower remedies may help.

TPH Calming Supplement_1

Supplements contain ingredients ranging from valerian root and other herbs to homeopathic remedies. Not all work on all dogs, but many are certainly worth a try.

CalmCare Cologne Mist_1

Pheromone diffusers help some dogs stay calm. Calmcare Cologne Mist contains pheromones as well as lavender and chamomile, generally considered to promote relaxation.

Dog Headphones_2

Music can provide a distraction while being soothing in and of itself, especially classical. Pandora even has a station just for dogs. Some pet parents swear by a white noise generator—the kind that people use to aid sleep.

For severe cases consult a qualified dog trainer, behaviorist, or your veterinarian. Drugs may be needed to reduce extreme anxiety, at least at first. 

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