Pets and Thunder!

It is the Summer storm season around Morinville. Long, hot days are followed by nights where lightning fills the sky, chased by booms of thunder. These storms are either so interesting or so terrifying, depending on who you are.

It is hard to understand why your dog is afraid of a balloon, or why your cat is afraid of your grandmother. Neither of those seem scary in the least. It is a little easier to understand why pets are afraid of thunderstorms: They are loud and bright and very intimidating. Lots of people are scared of thunderstorms for the same reasons. Unfortunately, when a pet is frightened by thunderstorms, they take that fear to a level way beyond what a person would. If they are outside during thunderstorms, pets may just start running with no regard for where they are going, or how for. Even if they are in their own house or kennel, they may start shaking, drooling, or vocalizing uncontrollably. In the worst cases, thunderstorms drive cats to hide in places they cannot or will not come out of, and make dogs do destructive behaviour (digging, chewing) to get away from the noise of the thunderstorms. Out of fear, many pets forget their house training.

The questions we hear about storms at Morinville Vet Clinic center around how to reduce the stress on the pets. We find that the most common solutions that owners have are not very helpful. The first solution is to hold the pet and comfort it. When they get this kind of close attention during thunderstorms, this only reinforces that they are showing the right behaviour to get their owner’s attention. They are being coached that they are supposed to be stressed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, owners that punish animals for being stressed in thunderstorms are reinforcing the message that storms are a bad thing. The third solution is to medicate the pet during thunderstorms. This might work if dogs and cats were not more sensitive than people to the signs of imminent thunderstorms. By the time an owner knows about a storm, their pet is already too stressed to be helped by tranquilizers. To be helpful, medicine would need to be given during the whole season when thunderstorms may occur. That is months of sedation in some places.

In the experience of the vets at Morinville, the most successful strategy is to work on desensitizing the pet to storms. You make a recording of a bad storm, then play it back very quietly while keeping your pet’s attention with an enjoyable activity like play or brushing. You keep repeating this until your pet is calm with the noise, then do it again with the volume slightly louder. The volume is slowly getting increased as the pet gets used to it. In the end, the pet is able to do something fun while the storm sounds are at full volume. The pets will still notice the noise, but they are able to focus on something else.

One recent product that is available for smaller pets is the “thundershirt”. This is a tight-fitting shirt that a cat or small dog can wear all the time during storm season. It gives the sensation of being snuggled up and protected, much like a baby is calmed by being swaddled. We have seen several pets that are much calmer wearing the shirts.

If you are concerned about your pet being too stressed during thunderstorms, please give us a call at (780)939-3133.


Written by Dr. Michael High