Dogs and storms: some dog lovers consider the combination a nightmare to manage while cat owners usually have less of an issue. But how can we help our four-legged friends, which are frightened by this natural phenomenon, cope? Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour, provides explanations and suggestions on the subject.
Why do dogs fear storms?
Through fear, whether experienced or instilled by the others, we learn how to avoid potentially dangerous situations. In animals, just as in men, fear can evoke one of three types of responses: fight, flight or freeze. Whatever the response, there will be an activation of the sympathetic nervous system marked by an increase in pulse and breathing rates, trembling and, in extreme cases, loss of bladder or bowel control.
The storm with its myriad of natural forces including wind, thunder and lightning can be dangerous for animals that live outdoors, but driven by an inbuilt survival instinct they will attempt to seek shelter from the storm.
Dogs and storms: a matter of senses? Yes: thanks to their superior hearing and sense of smell dogs perceive thunder more intensely and sense electricity in the air long before the storm arrives.
The fear dogs and cats feel during storms can also be exacerbated by a change in our usual behaviour (closing the doors and windows, and flitting between rooms, for example).
How to help our pet?
Unless we are taken by surprise by a sudden storm while at home with our dogs, we can prepare in advance for the situation, creating a pleasant environment for the pet before and during bad weather: an enjoyable and relaxing activity could be a perfect idea, perhaps with food rewards.
If our four-legged friend’s fear is only moderate, we can continue our normal household activities not overdoing any comforting cuddles, as these would legitimise the fear putting it on alert, nor ignoring it completely. We should also avoid forcing our pet to stay with us if it prefers to hide and should provide it with a safe place in which to take refuge and calm down, just as it would do in the wild.
On the other hand, if our pet, by its nature or through experience, fears the storm so much that it could put itself in danger, it would be appropriate to consult a veterinarian with expertise in pet behaviour to begin a process of personalised behavioural modification in order to desensitise it to the storm. In more serious cases, a pharmacological therapy may also help, however we should avoid improvised remedies and punishments that will only serve to reinforce the fear and increase the stress felt by our animal.