Pets and thunderstorms: how to deal with their fear

My sister had a Staffordshire Bull Terrier that was so terrified of thunderstorms it once chewed through a window frame to escape. It broke the window glass and hurt itself rather nastily in the process.

The family soon learned to stay home when storms were approaching or, if that wasn’t possible, to medicate their dog with a gentle calming medication.

May pet owners experience feelings of utter helplessness as their terrified pets try frantically to escape from a thunderstorm. Frightened pets may bark crazily, how or cry, or hide trembling under a bed.

Thunderstorm phobia is a fairly common disorder. It occurs in both dogs and cats, though dogs are more susceptible. Scientists believe it is a phobia that is physiological, emotional and behavioural so is not easy to cure.

Signs of thunderstorm fear

• Pacing

• Panting

• Trembling

• Hiding

• Staying close to you

• Excessive drooling

• Destructiveness (biting, chewing, tearing, clawing)

• Excessive howling, crying, barking

• Self-inflicted trauma

• Incontinence

As a result of his/her fear, your pet may also suffer the following injuries or ailments. They include a racing heart; increased cortisol levels; stress-induced hyperglycaemia; loss of appetite; stomach upset; injury as a result of attempts to escape; difficulty breathing; raw patches on the skin caused by repeat licking.

Causes of thunderstorm fear

The exact cause of thunderstorm phobia is unknown, but veterinarians believe there are several factors which could be responsible include a lack of exposure to thunderstorms as a puppy/kitten, a genetic predisposition, or the owner’s own (unintentional) reinforcement of fear.

What can I do about my pet’s fear?

Discuss your pet’s fears with your veterinarian. You can’t wish away a thunderstorm but there are things you can do to help your pet through the experience:

  • There are several pet-safe calming medications available from your veterinarian or through EberVet Vetshops. They are palatable and easy to administer with no harmful side effects.
  • If you know there is going to be a thunderstorm, stay home with your pet. Your pet will always feel safest with you.
  • Try to keep your pet confined in an area where he/she cannot cause self-harm.
  • Turn on the TV, play music, keep the family talking … any noise that distracts from the noise of thunder may keep your pet calmer.
  • If your dog usually sleeps outdoors, bring his/her bed inside and keep it close to you. Add a warm, snuggly blanket and his/her favourite toy.