Some people love thunderstorms so much that they’ll open the curtains and sit in the dark in their living room, watching the lightning out the window. For animals, though, thunderstorms can be so frightening that they cause severe agitation or even seizures.
Fear of thunderstorms typically occurs in dogs rather than cats, and the reason for the fear can be difficult to determine. Sometimes the fear is deeply ingrained because of a bad experience the dog had as a puppy during the imprint stage (from 8 to 16 weeks), but there’s no rhyme or reason to which dogs are affected by storms and which aren’t. Animals are more sensitive to sounds and environmental changes than humans are, so they can often sense when a storm is coming in, and the sights and sounds associated with storms are more severe to their heightened senses.
The danger of thunderstorms for dogs is twofold. First, the storm can cause severe agitation that might lead to shaking, panting, or in severe cases, seizures. The other danger is that dogs sometimes injure themselves trying to get to shelter if they’re left outside during a storm. A dog might paw her feet bloody while trying to get in the back door, or she might jump through a closed window and cut herself severely.
So what can you do as an owner to reduce the effects of thunderstorms on your dog? There are medications for controlling anxiety. The problem with these is that by the time you get the medication into your pet and it takes effect, the storm is usually over—especially in the Texas Panhandle. Our storms can be vicious, but they sometimes last no more than 10 minutes.
The best method for handling a pet that reacts negatively to storms is to be aware of the possibility of severe weather and to keep her inside and as calm as possible. There is a product called the Thundershirt that fits snugly around a dog’s body and helps to keep the dog calm by applying pressure around her trunk. Thundershirts are available at most major pet chains, including Petco and PetSmart. If your dog reacts badly to lightning rather than thunder (this is unusual, but it does happen), covering her with a blanket so that she can’t see the flashes of light often helps. And if your dog has a history of seizures, she needs to be on her seizure medication faithfully throughout the severe weather season. Thunderstorms are a major trigger for epileptic activity in dogs.
The effects of thunderstorm anxiety can also be caused by other similar stimuli such as fireworks and low-flying hot air balloons, but it’s rare for this sort of anxiety to require any sort of veterinary intervention. Pet owners can usually prevent any severe issues by taking precautions to ensure that their pets feel safe during storms.