A phobia is an irrational fear of something that is not harmful or injurous on it's own. Fear is a rational and life-saving response. For example, feeling fear when a lion is chasing you is normal, and a good response to have. Feeling fear when you see dark clouds in the sky is a phobia as the dark clouds present no real danger to you.
Dogs with storm phobias can vary from mild (panting, pacing) to severe (jumping through windows, chewing through walls etc) but all of these animals are experiencing distress for the duration of the event.
Signs of early distress are pacing, panting, dilated pupils, drooling, lip licking, yawning.... and may progress to trembling, destruction, hiding, overt proximity seeking, escape attempts and self mutilation.
Methods to deal with storm phobias include:
- Providing a safe place! Where the animal feels comfortable. This may be a crate in an internal room with no windows, covered with blankets, or under the bed where the lightning flashes can't be seen. If your pet has a safe place they go to, make it happier for them so they can feel safer there - don't drag them out to 'face their fears'! Also, don't confine them if they will hurt themselves! These guys are experiencing blind terror and will not stop at anything to 'escape' it. These guys need medication and behavioural modification plans, like, yesterday.
- Distraction - don't comfort or punish your pet for exhibiting phobic behaviours. Comforting inadvertently reinforces the behaviour, and punishing makes a scary event even more scary (and confusing). Both are unhelpful to your pet. Instead, stay calm yourself and play with toys (if they are relaxed enough to), feed treats and engage in simple training. Playing white noise, or a musical CD to muffle the sounds outside can help too. All of these things are positive experiences and will begin to...
- De-sensitise - Get a CD with storm noises and play at a level that doesn't cause any early distress signs, and engage in positive play or treat games with your pet for 5 mins twice a day. Over time (don't rush it or you'll create a fearful, and therefore negative experience again) you will be able to increase the volume until your pet feels comfortable even at normal volume. The positive associations from happy engagements help them feel the noises aren't to be feared (this works with any noise phobia).
- Medicate - Some dogs with storm phobias have other phobias in other parts of their lives and will need a pshycotropic medication to reduce anxiety overall, as high levels of anxiety impair learning and prevent animals from rehabilitating. These are given daily and for extended periods of time (>6mths) Spot medicating with anxiolytics can be done either alone or in conjunction with the psychotropic meds. However spot medication must be given BEFORE the anxiety builds or it will not be effective.
If your pet has a phobia of storms come see us, we can provide you with handouts and evaluate your pet to see if medicating (short term or long term) can help it cope through these events until you can both relax. Also, don't forget about cats! Frightened cats will hide, so if your cat hides deep in the house during storms, chances are it has a storm phobia too!!