Thunderstorms and Fireworks – Help manage your pet’s phobia
Thunderstorm & Fireworks Phobias are common problems for pets, especially dogs. These can be present from puppyhood or develop later on. Commonly this problem gets worse with repeated occurrences resulting in increasingly severe panic attacks. Many dogs will frantically try to escape the noise to find a place to hide or simply run to try to get away. This can result in severe damage to themselves with broken teeth, cut lips and gums, torn claws and skin cuts in their efforts to get out of the yard/house or into the house in some cases. Some dogs simply run frantically barking leading to exhaustion, over heating and stress. If they manage to escape the yard they can be hit by a car and be injured or worse, killed. Often they are so confused in their panic that they cannot find their way home once they calm down and end up at the pound.
While thunderstorms are unpredictable and more difficult to manage, fireworks can often be predicted and therefore you can use management strategies to help your pets to cope. This starts by providing a hiding place for them that they can access at any time. Try to avoid the dog becoming trapped away from this place of safety as this can increase their panic. In the case of fireworks bring your pets inside, play music quietly to help mask the noise, shut the windows and draw the curtains to block out the sound and light. Offer piles of blankets to hide under, these can be draped over the back of a chair and a dog bed or other blanket placed between the chair legs and the other end of the blanket to offer a mini cave. You may also find it useful to place an old jumper or shirt into this cave to offer a familiar scent. Avoid sympathising and telling them its all OK, this can reinforce their fearful behaviour. Instead sit quietly and relaxed near them, or chat in a cheerful voice about what is going on. Don’t get angry if their frantic behaviour is driving you mad. Remember they are in a panic and not capable of responding to you.
Besides giving them a bolthole you can also aid them by use of the Adaptil spray, collar or diffuser. This is a pheromone for dogs that relieves anxiety and helps them to calm down. The spray can be applied to a bandana the dog is wearing or on the blankets of the dog’s bolthole. For cats the Feliway spray or diffuser will offer similar relief. Another strategy is to try a Thunder Shirt. This is a tight fitting dog coat that applies pressure around the dog’s body. Many dogs respond well to the shirt and will remain calmer through the fireworks and storms. Medication may also be needed to help them cope in the short term. These medications are usually designed to relieve anxiety and panic without heavy sedation, but are not a good long-term solution especially for unpredictable events such as thunderstorms.
Ultimately the best hope of long-term resolution of the problem is to gradually desensitise and counter condition the dogs to the noise. This involves exposing them to very low levels of the frightening sound while doing something positive like feeding treats or playing a game and very gradually through many repeated sessions increasing the level of noise until they can cope with the actual events without fear. When done incorrectly this sort of treatment can make their phobia worse so it is important to consult your veterinarian or animal behaviourist to discuss how to desensitise your dog properly.