Wellness Wednesday : When Your Dog Is Afraid of Storms

What to do if you have a dog with storm phobia.

By Daphne Sashin

It can be heartbreaking to watch: Even before the first clap of thunder, otherwise well-behaved dogs begin to pace, pant, cling to their owners, hide in the closet, or jam themselves behind the toilet. In severe cases, they’ll claw through drywall, chew carpets, or break through windows in their escalating panic.

Thunderstorm phobia in dogs is real, not uncommon, and shouldn’t be ignored, experts say.

“Most of the time they don’t grow out of it on their own, and many will get worse with time if nothing is done,” says Matt Peuser, DVM, a veterinarian at Olathe Animal Hospital in Kansas.

Why does storm phobia happen, and what can you do if your dog suffers from it?

Storm Phobia Triggers

Veterinarians don’t know all the triggers but suspect the dogs are set off by some combination of wind, thunder, lightning, barometric pressure changes, static electricity, and low-frequency rumbles preceding a storm that humans can’t hear. According to one theory, dogs experience painful shocks from static buildup before the storm.

The anxiety often gets worse throughout the season as storms become more frequent.

Dogs often start having storm-related panic attacks seemingly out of nowhere, says Barbara L. Sherman, PhD, DVM, associate professor of veterinary behavior at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a past president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

“Owners come in and say, ‘He wasn’t like this last year,” Sherman tells WebMD. “It’s really heart wrenching to see these dogs that are usually calm companions become severely affected by thunderstorms.”

Herding breeds, such as border collies, may be predisposed to the problem, according to an Internet survey by Tufts University researchers. Dogs with other fearful behaviors, such as separation anxiety, also seem more prone to panic.

Some dogs with storm phobia are also frightened of other loud noises, such as fireworks or gunshots, but others are only afraid of storms.

What to do? There’s no easy fix, and unless your dog is only mildly affected, it can be difficult to treat, vets say. But there are lots of tools to reduce your dog’s distress during storm season:

1. Reward calm behavior year-round.

Many owners make the mistake of trying to console and pet a fearful dog that’s whimpering or climbing on them, but that just encourages the panicky behavior, Sherman says.

“We absolutely don’t want owners to scold their dog, but we don’t want them to reward the dog for being clingy because that will increase the clingy behavior,” she says.

Instead, practice getting your dog to settle on command. Sherman advises clients to put a special “inside” leash on the dog and practice having the pet lie at their feet while praising the calm behavior.

“They should practice when there is no storm, so the dog learns the routine,” she says. “When the storm comes up, then they put on the leash and say, ‘Come on and lie down here,’ and the dog still knows what to do.”

During the storm, you can also try distracting the dog by offering its favorite toy, playing fetch, petting it, and feeding treats as long as the dog remains calm, Peuser says.

 “What you’re trying to do is get them to forget about the storm and replace [the fear] with something positive,” he says.

2. Give the dog a safe place where he can go in a storm.

That might be an open crate, a basement where the dog can’t hear or see what’s happening outside, an interior room with music playing, or a bathroom.

Let your dog decide: Notice where he goes during a storm, and if possible, allow access to it.

Be sure your dog can come and go freely, since some animals become more anxious if confined. Sherman treated one golden retriever that was confined to a garage and, in an attempt to escape during a storm, scratched through the drywall of the door leading to the house.

3. Consider a snug garment.

Snug-fitting shirts and wraps especially designed to calm anxious dogs are worth a try, says Sherman, who has consulted for Thundershirt, a so-called pressure garment that is said to have a calming effect similar to swaddling a baby. Some dogs also respond to wearing a metal fabric-lined cape marketed as the Storm Defender, which claims to protect dogs from static shocks.

So far, the benefits of these garments are anecdotal. A 2009 study found “there was a trend toward the Storm Defender performing better” than a placebo cape, but the results were statistically insignificant, said study author Nicole Cottam, MS, behavior service coordinator at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Tufts researchers are currently performing a study sponsored by the makers of Anxiety Wrap, another compression garment.

4. In the winter, desensitize your dog to the sounds of a storm.

Play a CD of thunder recordings at low enough levels that don’t frighten your dog, while giving him treats or playing a game. Gradually increase the volume over the course of several months, stopping if your dog shows any signs of anxiety. The goal is to get your dog used to the sound of thunder, and associate it with good things, Peuser says.

Experts caution that desensitization can have limited success in an actual storm because you can only recreate the noise, and not the other factors that may be bothering the dog, such as the static electricity or changes in barometric pressure.

5. Ask your veterinarian for advice.

The doctor may have more ideas for behavior modification and can assess whether medication may also be needed.

“Not every dog needs anti-anxiety medication, but dogs that are in a horrible state of high anxiety will really benefit,” Sherman says. In severe cases, owners will keep their dogs on the medication for the whole season, while others give their dog medicine in the morning if there’s a chance of a storm later on.

A 2003 study by veterinarians at the University of Georgia found that 30 out of 32 dogs with storm phobia showed significant improvement when given medication combined with behavior modification and desensitization.

“We have our best luck with a management plan that includes changing some features in the environment, applying some behavior modification techniques, and often some anti-anxiety medication,” Sherman says. “Work with your veterinarian to come up with a treatment plan.”

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Wellness Wednesday ~ Dogs Left In Cars – Risk of Heat Stroke on Warm Days

 By Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM Veterinary Medicine Expert

“Just a few minutes” could be an eternity in a 120F degree car.  Even on cooler days, cars can heat up to dangerous temperatures

 

Even when parked in the shade on a warm day, animals (or kids or the elderly) can succumb to heatstroke or death if left in the car unattended. Sadly, it happens every year.

Tips on how you can help

  • If you know who the owner is, a friendly “hey, your pet is hot” or some other means of striking up conversation will alert the owner to the dangers of leaving their pet in the car. Keeping some “Don’t Leave Me in Here — It’s Hot!” flyers in your car are also a great way of spreading the word.
  • Usually though, the car is in a parking lot and the dog is alone. In this case, speak with a store manager. I have found store managers to be very helpful in locating the owner or calling animal control. They do not want a tragedy happening in their parking lot.
  • Call your local animal control or the police for assistance. My friend is an animal control officer. We were discussing the “pet left in a car” problem. I felt that surely, by now, the message would be out about the dangers of leaving pets (or children) in cars on warm days. No, she assured me that they get calls every year responding to distressed animals in left in cars. Some animals still die from heatstroke, even when animal control is called. Minutes count.
  • Keep your local animal control phone number in your cell phone. Many areas provide parking lot assistance or patrols for animals in cars.

But it’s summer! I want to take my dog with me.

Pets are part of the family. We frequently take our dogs with us on outings. And, no matter how prepared, it seems we always have to run a quick errand or two on the way to wherever we are going. We solve this problem by parking in the shade, leashing or kenneling the dogs, and family members staying with the car and the dogs, keeping doors and windows open.

If you are alone, the above scenario isn’t possible and more creativity is needed. Here are some ideas.

  • Use the drive-up if possible. This works for some restaurants, banks, and pharmacies.
  • Shop in pet-welcome stores. Pet stores typically allow pets, and they do carry “human” items like candy and snacks if you are in a hurry.
  • Utilize a travel kennel outside the car, in the shade, if possible. NOTE: Please use this tip judiciously and with caution; not for use in parking lots, not in an area where your pet could be pestered by bystanders, etc., etc. In general, travel kennels are a great way to keep your pet safe while in fresh air, with cool water, and so on.

I feel that bystanders are the “eyes and ears” to aid in preventing animal (and child) abuse and neglect. Getting involved does make a difference, especially for those who may not have a voice. If you are uncomfortable reporting a problem, please find assistance through a store manager, animal control, friend or family member to assist those in need.

Wellness Wednesday: Protect Your Dog’s Feet from Getting Burned on Hot Pavement

Dog’s feet and pads are tough, right? Most people are aware that foot pads can be injured by stepping on something sharp, but what about something hot? Dangerously hot pavement and metal surfaces are hard to avoid in the heat of summer. Walking or running on hard pavement is tough on feet, too. 

Pavement, metal or tar-coated asphalt get extremely hot in the summer sun. We remember to wear sandals, walk on the grass and not sit down on these surface in the heat of the day (most of the time — I know that I have been surprised a time or two).

Harder to remember is summer heat and our dog’s feet. Unlike the obvious wounds such as lacerations, foot infections (fungal, bacterial), or foreign bodies such as cheat grass), burned pads may not be apparent to the eye, at least initially.

Signs of burned pads:

  • limping or refusing to walk
  • licking or chewing at the feet
  • pads darker in color
  • missing part of pad
  • blisters or redness

Another Way to Injure Pads on Hot Pavement

A colleague and I presented at a wilderness first aid talk for people who love to be in the outdoors with their dogs. One of the audience members shared a story of what had happened to their dog and brought up a good point about foot pad health.

They had been swimming/floating in the river for about an hour and a half. When it was time to go, they walked along the road, but then their Labrador Retriever refused to go on. They figured that he was just exhausted from the swim. Turns out, his foot pads were bleeding and he was in pain. The time in the water has softened his pads up quite a bit and the hot road asphalt severely burned the pads.

Burned Pad First Aid

It is important to keep the foot area cool and clean. As soon as you notice the problem (limping along on the road), flush with cool water or a cool compress if available. Get the dog to a grassy area or if possible, carry him.

At first chance, your vet should examine your dog for signs of deeper burns, blisters and possibility of infection. Your vet will determine if antibiotics or pain medication is needed.

Washing the feet with a gentle cleanser and keeping them clean is important. Bandaging can be difficult to do and to maintain (monitor and change often), but licking must be kept to a minimum. Some dogs will tolerate a sock to keep the area clean, but caution is advised for dogs that may chew and ingest the sock. Lick deterrents (bitter sprays) may help reduce the damage caused by licking.

Prevention is Best

Best advice is to be mindful of hot surfaces — asphalt and metal (i.e. boat dock, car or truck surfaces) — and walk your dog on the cool side of the street or in the grass.

Another tip is to lay down a wet towel for your dog to stand on when grassy areas are not available. Good way to keep cool while loading up the car.