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Nervous Husky looking out a window at thunderstorm

Calming pets during thunderstorms

Thunderstorm season is approaching; and while it’s normal to flinch at a particularly close lightning strike, some pets become so frightened by electrical storms that they experience full-blown panic. In such a hyper-agitated state, both dogs and cats have been known to flee their homes and even run into traffic—sometimes with tragic results.

As owners, we want to soothe and comfort our storm-phobic animals, but we don’t always recognize the signs of an impending panic episode or know the right ways to help. Here we’ll look at the signs of storm-phobic panic in pets and examine a few simple techniques you can use to minimize your animal’s anxiety during those summertime boomers.

Signs Of Anxiety 

How do pets become alerted to an approaching thunderstorm? Often they seem to know a storm is coming even before the first distant thunderclap. Turns out our pets are more sensitive than we are when it comes to detecting changes in barometric pressure, wind direction, and buildup of static electricity in the atmosphere. These helpful evolutionary tools help them seek shelter before a storm arrives—but sometimes this heightened state of alertness can develop into more. 

As the owners of a mildly storm-phobic dog, we’ve grown to recognize the signs of pet panic. Our dog, usually friendly and gregarious, will usually begin to shiver and pant as a storm nears. Often she’ll seek us out for comfort or will hide under the covers. Some pets experience even more severe stress symptoms—including dilated pupils, excessive salivation (drooling), trembling or shaking, pacing, panting, chewing, or even urinating and defecating. 

Tips for Calming Your Pet

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to calm your storm-phobic pet. 

Stay calm. Pets pick up on our emotional states. If we’re calm, they are more likely to remain calm as well. Conversely, if we’re agitated, they can pick-up on that too. So when handling a storm-phobic animal, convey a calm confident mood. 

Build a storm shelter. While cats will most often find their own hiding place regardless of your best suggestion, storm-phobic dogs may welcome a bunker you build for them. A storm shelter should be someplace dark but accessible, preferably away from windows. You can stock the shelter with your dog’s favorite blanket, toys, and treats (yes, comfort food works for pets too).

The power of sound. Thunder itself can be very upsetting to some pets. One approach to reducing their anxiety is desensitization. Playing prerecorded storm sounds daily when there is no storm can help a phobic pet understand that the sounds are normal and not harmful. Another approach is to use calming music to mask the sounds of an approaching storm. Which technique is more effective will depend on your animal.

See your vet. In some severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe medications for anxiety. When paired with behavior modification, meds can help reduce storm anxiety—both during acute episodes (Valium or Xanax) and over the long-term (Clomicalm® or Reconcile®).

Go high-tech. These days technology seems to offer a solution for almost every problem. The Storm Defender® cape, for example, aims to reduce static charge buildup that can trigger a panic episode. Worn like a doggy coat, it can help comfort your pet during electrical storms. Another cuddly solution is Anxiety Wrap@, a gentle pressure wrap similar to swaddling. These wraps have shown effectiveness in some dogs and cats.

Hopefully with these simple tips both you and your pets will have a fear-free summer, regardless of the weather.

Editor's Note: For more tips on calming your dog during a storm, check out Kelsie McKenzie's blog, "8 tips to calm your dog during a storm."

Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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