It wouldn’t be summer in Texas without a few thunderstorms rolling through. While many people find the sound of rain relaxing, others may dread storm-filled forecasts if their pets have storm anxiety. While some pets react only to thunder, others may react to lightning, rain, wind or pressure changes. Pets that experience anxiety during storms not only suffer from the mental effects of anxiety but also are at risk for destructive behavior and even self-injuries.
Potential Causes of Storm Anxiety
The cause of storm anxiety is unknown. While some pets may have suffered a negative experience during a storm, many have no such history. Some scientists feel that storm anxiety is related to an innate fear of noises, but others suspect it is a genetic trait. Herding breeds may be more at risk. The typical age of onset is between 1 to 5 years, although there are reports in puppies as young as 9 weeks.1
Clinical Signs Vary Based on Animal
While clinical signs vary, the most common reported include panting, pacing, hiding, drooling and following people through the home.2 Some animals, perhaps more severely affected, may be destructive to items in their environment. Although there have been several studies on dogs in storms, far less information is available on cats. In one study on firework anxiety, dogs exhibited more overt signs like pacing and panting, while cats hid and cowered.3 This difference is likely to occur during storms as well. While it is difficult to miss a 90-pound Labrador jumping on your bed during a storm at 2 a.m., it is easy to miss a hiding cat. This does not mean cats are any less afraid than their canine counterparts. Instead, owners have to be more vigilant for subtle signs of anxiety because cats are equally in need of treatment.
Comprehensive Treatment Approach Improves Likelihood of Success
Treatment should focus first on reducing anxiety and providing an appropriate environment during storms. Once that is accomplished, the behavior can be modified through training. Behavior modification helps change the way the pet feels when it experiences the storms. However, without reducing anxiety, most pets have a difficult time learning how to be calm during storms. There are several different avenues to pursue for decreasing anxiety, including behavior training, creating safe spaces, medication, pheromones, pressure wraps and supplements.
Pet Owners Modify Fearful and Anxious Behavior Through Training
Modifying a pet’s behavior through training can change the way it responds to storms. However, behavior modification programs for storm anxiety are not always easy to implement on your own. Many qualified trainers and behavior consultants can help tailor a protocol for your pet, but you should work closely with your veterinarian when your pet has a behavior problem to identify a trainer that is skilled at these techniques and only uses positive reinforcement training for behavior problems.
Easy Access to Safe, Quiet Areas Offers Haven for Pets
It’s important to provide safe spots for pets during storms and ensure they have free access to this area at all times in case a storm arises unexpectedly. Outdoor pets should come inside if there is any threat of storms. Some pets seek spaces like closets or quiet, small rooms. An interior, first-floor room or closet may be more insulated to storm sounds. Some owners have found a white noise machine beneficial to block subtle-to-moderate storm sounds, and others reported classical music calms their pets.
Different Medications Calm Pets’ Nerves
Appropriately selected medication can quickly reduce anxiety in many pets and, depending on the option, quite quickly. While some pets may need short-term medications, others may need daily medication or even a combination of medications. This should only be pursued in consultation with a veterinarian. While your veterinarian may feel comfortable prescribing anxiety-reducing medication, others prefer to refer you to a veterinarian who specializes in behavior.
Pheromones Aid in Calming Pets
Commercially available pheromonea chemical substance produced and released into the environment by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, affecting the behavior or physiology of others of its species products are species-specific and often have a calming effect. For example, Adaptil, a synthetic analogue of a calming pheromone for dogs, can calm dogs in a variety of situations, and it comes in various forms including diffusers, collars and sprays.
Pressure Wraps Sooth Some Pets
Pressure wraps like the Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap may help calm some pets. While we do not know the exact mechanism for how they work, some suggest that the light pressure they produce on the body may lead to an endorphin release that could have a calming effect. However, some pets may become more inhibited and stop moving, which can be easily misinterpreted as calm. Monitor your pet for signs of calmer behavior, including soft eyes, relaxed breathing and easy movement.
Supplements Help Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Many pets may benefit from supplements such as L-theanine*, an amino acid. In one study, the use of L-theanine showed a decrease in multiple storm-anxiety signs, including drooling, panting and pacing. With the treatment, there was a 94-percent satisfaction rate among owners’.4 There are a variety of supplements that contain L-theanine, such as Anxitane and Solliquin.* In another study, the combination of the botanical extracts Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense effectively reduced storm-anxiety signs in dogs.5 This combination is available in both Harmonease and Solliquin. Your veterinarian can help determine if these products are appropriate for your pet.
Planning ahead can greatly reduce your pet’s anxiety during storms. Our goals in treating storm anxiety are to not only reduce anxiety but also to provide an appropriate environment during thunderstorms and to modify your pet’s behavior through training.
1 McCobb EC, Brown EA, Damiani K, Dodman NH. Thunderstorm phobia in dogs: An internet survey of 69 cases. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 2001; 37:319-324.
2 Pike AL, Horwitz DF, Lobprise H. An open-label prospective study of the use of l-theanine (Anxitane) in storm-sensitive client-owned dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2015; 10: 324-331.
3 Dale AR, Walker JK Farnworth MJ et al. A survey of owners’ perceptions of fear of fireworks in a sample of dogs and cats in New Zealand. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 2010; 58(6): 286-291.
4Pike AL, Horwitz DF, Lobprise H. An open-label prospective study of the use of l-theanine (Anxitane) in storm-sensitive client-owned dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2015; 10: 324-331.
5 DePorter TL, Landsberg GM. Harmonease Chewable Tablets reduces noise-induced fear and anxiety in a laboratory canine thunderstorm simulation: A blinded and placebo-controlled study. J Vet Behav 2012; 7(4):225-232.
Dr. Florsheim was born and raised in Dallas. She graduated from Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and owns Veterinary Behavior Solutions.