One of my favorite things about summer is late-night thunderstorms. Since childhood, they have intrigued me with their beauty and serenity. But unfortunately, many of our dog and cat companions don’t share the same feeling. Storm fears and, on a broader scale, noise fears are among the most common problems we encounter in our practice, and they ramp up in summertime.
Every dog or cat behavior is triggered by something. Sometimes noise fears trigger obvious responses, such as running downstairs or panting. Often, they trigger panicked responses, such as jumping into the bathtub or drooling. Unfortunately for our animal housemates, they are not wired to seek our help, so it is our responsibility to understand their responses and assist them.
I like to group psychology into three groups: environmental management, psychotherapy and medications. Our biggest hurdle in animals is that we cannot do psychotherapy. I was actually very afraid of storms as a child, but at a young age, my parents reassured me that they would not let the storm hurt me. This allowed me to enjoy the beauty of the weather without sustained fears. Unfortunately, we can’t do this with our animals. We are left to maximize the other two categories.
Another challenge with noise fears is that we can’t eliminate the trigger. Storms will happen and kids will blow up fireworks. Therefore, we need to focus on mitigating the triggers. Many animals self-soothe by running under beds or going in the basement. If the panting, drooling or other obvious behaviors subside, then this is a great plan. However, many animals need more help.
White noise often works very well. Traditional distractions such as music or TV distract dogs and cats; however, we have more success with white noise machines or apps. It’s remarkable how different every animal is, so we recommend experimenting with different background noises. Closing shades and having family members stay in rooms where the animals choose to go helps often as well.
But sometimes this isn’t enough. Some animals’ fears are too intense for these methods to fully work, and at other times, they make associations and generalize the stimulus to their fears. For example, rainy days may induce fears since the storms also bring rain.
In intense or very generalized situations, medications are often very helpful. There are many supplements available, mostly a formulation of some amino acids, which don’t tend to help extreme fears. There are some medications which are very inexpensive and safe that, if given a couple hours prior to the stimulus, can make all the difference in the world, providing your animal with peace and comfort on a stormy night.
Please consult your veterinarian if this seems necessary.