This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune online Brand Publishing "From House to Home" section, and on Menards.com.
Fear of thunderstorms is primal. Children often run and hide when thunder booms and lightning flashes. Your pet may have the same fear and reaction. It can be heartbreaking to watch, and even more frustrating if they start tearing up the house from anxiety. However, you can help your pet find the calm in a storm, using these tips.
1. Bring pets indoors
The first rule of thunderstorm management is never to leave a pet outside and exposed in any type of storm, says Amber Berckhalter, chair of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
2. Avoid coddling
The second rule is not to "over-support" or coddle your dog when it is showing fear. "Any behavior you reinforce will become stronger," she explains.
3. Distraction often works
If the dog is mildly afraid but not in an all-out panic, it's OK to allow it to go under a bed or into a closet until the storm passes. Turn on some music or bring out its favorite toy to distract it. "I've seen dogs decrease their phobias by 80 to 90 percent just by doing those simple things," Berckhalter says.
4. Secret weapons
One secret weapon in the fight against thunderstorm phobia is an unscented dryer sheet. Yes, you read that right. Thunderstorms generate static electricity that can trigger fear in dogs before the booming begins. Rubbing their coat with the dryer sheet rids their fur of the static electricity that can upset them, Berckhalter explains.Pheromone collars and other products made to quell fear have been successful on some dogs, as well.
5. Desensitize gradually
You can also try desensitizing your dog to the sounds and flashes of storms by playing a CD of a thunderstorm very softly, and increasing the volume over time. You can also use the flash on a camera to simulate lightning.
6. Medical intervention
If your dog is scratching at the door, going crazy trying to escape, or tearing up the furniture or the house, it's time to talk to your vet about other solutions such as medication."Dogs can become a danger to themselves in these situations," Berckhalter says. "I've known dogs to jump out of windows or be found running loose miles from home, or hit by cars during thunderstorms. This is something to address with a behaviorist because it will only get worse with age.
"Berckhalter says dogs develop a phobia of storms when they experience fear before they have the coping skills to deal with it. Or if they have been left outdoors or not socialized to strange noises as puppies.
7. But what about cats?
Cats typically show their fear by immediately running away and hiding, which, for most cats, solves the problem, says Kirsten C. Theisen, director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States.
That is not to say cats can't have phobias and anxieties, especially from loud noises."Cats often will show subtle signs, such as their ears turning sideways. Or the cat will be sitting in a guarded, hunched position," Theisen says. "Each owner knows when they look at their cat. If it's really stressed – panting or drooling or becoming aggressive – talk to your vet about its anxiety."
"Cats are somewhat better managers of their own stress than dogs," she adds. "They can moderate their anxiety as long as they have an escape route."The Humane Society recommends leaving scaredy-cats alone. "If your cat is hiding but healthy, leave him alone," humanesociety.org states. "He'll come out when he's ready. Forcing him out of his hiding spot will only make him more fearful. Make sure he has easy access to food, water and a litter box."