Posted 4 months ago
Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping thunderstorms, and with the Met Office warning they are due to hit much of England and southern Wales in the next few days, many new pet owners will be faced with the reality of traumatised dogs for the first time.
What causes thunder?
A fear of thunder is called astraphobia and can affect both humans and animals. The Met Office says thunder and lightning is caused by instability in the air, when the updraft of warm air is rapid and forms larger ice crystals in colder clouds above, which turn into hail.
As the hail moves within clouds it picks up a negative charge by rubbing against smaller positively charged ice crystals. The negative charge is attracted to the Earth's surface and other clouds and objects.
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When the attraction becomes too strong, the positive and negative charges come together and spark lightning, while the rapid expansion and heating of air caused by the lightning produces a drop in barometric pressure and the accompanying loud clap of thunder.
Why does thunder scare dogs so much?
As with fireworks, thunder and lightning can have a major impact on our pets. Dr Ragen McGowan, a behaviour research scientist at pet food brand Purina, said this can be down to a dog’s personality and past experiences, with some more upset by lightning than thunder.
And our darling dogs’ super-sensitive senses play a big part in sparking their fear, causing them anxiety even before we humans are aware a storm is on the way.
“There’s usually more buildup before a thunderstorm than with fireworks, for example changes in the barometric pressure, high winds, rain, hail and/or lightning, thus dogs might learn to expect thunder,” Dr McGowan adds.
Many dogs can sense the changes in air pressure or may hear the low-frequency rumblings of thunder long before their owners can.
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Signs to watch for
Look for the body language clues in your dog – they may show some anxiety long before you are aware, so act early – don’t wait until your dog is fully stressed. Even the rain on the roof at the start of a storm may be enough to trigger an anxious response if they’ve already picked up on the change in air pressure.
Anxious dogs may display growling, barking, whining, pacing, yawning and panting. They may try to hide or tuck their ears down and whimper, and even those who are toilet-trained might have stress accidents and leave a puddle on the floor. These symptoms can all get worse with age, so it’s best to try to find a solution when they are younger.
How to help
The Kennel Club has advice that could help your dog cope with thunderstorms.
- Playing desensitisation CDs or downloads that replicate storms and other noises can be useful preparation. Play these quietly while going about your regular routine and interacting with your dog could get them used to the noises and realise it isn’t anything to worry about. Over time, you can gradually build up the volume so that your dog’s tolerance levels improve.
- Create a den by covering their crate with a sheet or make a ‘dog nest’ in a cupboard, bathroom, a small windowless room or even a cardboard box. Fill it with their favourite blankets and toys to make your dog feel safe, and close windows and curtains to minimise the noise and bright flashes.
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- Mask the noise during the storm by playing your dog a white noise recording, calming music, or even turn on the TV or radio for them.
- Make sure your dog has been to the toilet before the storm hits and has had a good walk or a play to disperse any built-up energy and stop them becoming anxious. If your dog is already on edge when a storm comes, they are likely to struggle all the more.
- While your dog is relaxed, you could put them in a special tight-fitting jacket called a thunder shirt. This has a comforting effect on some dogs. However, you should always take into account the weather, as you don’t want your dog to overheat, the Kennel Club warns.
- Stay relaxed yourself - you may not love storms, and your dog will pick up on this and share your fears. Keep your body language calm and confident to show that they have nothing to worry about. Talk with a soothing voice. It's okay to cuddle your dog if that’s what they want, but be careful about giving them treats as this could reinforce their unwanted behaviour. If they take themselves to their den or even under your bed, that’s fine too - let them go where they feel comfortable.
- Distract them by playing with them and keeping them engaged. A storm can be the perfect time to get out their favourite toys or work on some doggy puzzles. This will keep both of your minds off the storm.
You can also ask your vet for help if your dog becomes extremely agitated. You might consider medication or a natural remedy for pets, but seek expert advice. They may also recommend some sort of vest, shirt or wrap that applies light, constant compression. This can help alleviate anxiety (similar to calming a baby with swaddling)
Finally, remember to practice positive reinforcement with your dog. Don’t scold or punish him for his thunder phobia - his behavior is the result of fear, not disobedience.