Thunderstorm and fireworks fears

It has been a beautiful spring and we are heading towards summer. For many, this time of year can be hard due to the thunderstorms that we experience in this region. For anyone who has a pet with a fear of thunder and/or lightning, it is a time when they see serious fear behaviours from their pet. A distressed pet is usually also very distressing for an owner and some owner’s need to change plans due to weather activity simply so they can make sure their pet stays safe.

Fear of thunder when seen in pets can range from mild signs of fear with seeking of owner comfort, to severe phobia with major panic. Fear of fireworks can present in the same way with a range of signs. Fireworks will soon be a concern for some owners and pets as we approach the festive season. New Year’s Eve is a problem for many pet owners.

What starts as a mild fear can progress to a more severe fear response with each exposure to the storm or fireworks. The fear can also generalise to become anxiety. For example, a fear of thunder can progress to become severe anxiety on a cloudy day or when the wind picks up or when there is a drop in barometric pressure – the animal is anxious that the storm might occur and can be affected for hours, days or even longer. Such a state is debilitating and results in decreased quality of life for a pet.

Many owners are not aware that what is a small problem can progress to become a major welfare issue in certain seasons and it can be very disruptive to an owner’s life as well. Owners of animals with severe thunderstorm fears find themselves needing to leave work to check on their pet during a storm. In the middle of the night, an owner may need to respond to a pet’s needs if fireworks are set off for a festival.

At recent presentations given to local communities I was asked about new treatments for thunderstorm fears in dogs. There are new medications that help many dogs weather a storm. As with any medication, a dog should be checked to ensure good physical health and the medication should be trialled on the dog while not challenged by the storm to see how well that particular individual responds to the medication. The correct and safe dose needs to be ascertained before the animal is faced with the stimulus for his/her fear.

The best treatment for any dog is to get the help he/she needs early to reduce the progression of the disorder. It is not uncommon for me to see thunderstorm fear as a co-morbidity with another problem. During a behaviour consultation, any problem that is affecting an animal’s anxiety level is recognised and a therapeutic plan recommended so that progression of behavioural illness is well managed and monitored.

As the fireworks season approaches and thunderstorm season is upon us, I urge anyone with an animal who has a fear of such events to seek appropriate treatment for their pet’s problem early before there is further progression of the behavioural illness.

The film shown below was taken during a thunderstorm. Izzy is managed for thunderstorm phobia. In the past she would huddle down and tremble in fear next to someone. If someone was not immediately available, she would run around in a panic searching for someone. She could not cope when left alone and would need to sit next to me being massaged. In this film, I called her out of her crate for a focus exercise to help her be calm. She was then able to return to her crate to continue enjoying her food toy in a more relaxed state.