Dr. Mitsie Vargas
With thunder season full in swing, now is a great time to talk about how we can prepare our dogs to accept the noise of thunder, rather than pee themselves or tear up the house in fear!
But first, it might help to clear out a harmful myth given to dog owners: “Don’t pet your dog if she runs to you because she’s afraid of thunder.” This advice is fundamentally wrong because fear itself is aversive. So much so that no amount of petting or sweet talk is going to make your dog more likely to shiver when she hears thunder rolling.
Here’s an example that might help to further illustrate this point. What if someone tried to rob your house in the middle of the night, and after the intruder left, a loved one sat down with you, brought you tea, then gave you a hug? Would their sympathy make you more likely to be afraid if it happened again in the future? Can you imagine someone saying: “Well, I know you’re afraid, but I’m going to ignore you because any sympathy that I give might make you more likely to be frightened if it ever happens again.”
It is true that you can make your dog more afraid than he already is by forcing him into situations that scare him already, or by acting afraid of yourself. Emotions are contagious. The bad news is that petting won’t help your dog either.
Instead, some things to do for your dog at the moment are to play classical music to cover up the loud thunderclaps, and to smear peanut butter on a lick mat, as licking can be a soothing behavior for dogs. There are soothing supplements like Zylkene, Composure, and Solliquin that some people have had success with as well. The CBD treats have mixed results but some pets do well with them, too. Even the thunderstorm cape has helped many dogs react less and minimize their storm anxiety. Even melatonin can have a calming effect.
Even better is to prepare for the moment with counter-conditioning. You can find videos of thunder on Youtube and start at an extremely low volume, pause the video and give your dog a treat within three seconds. Play it again at a slightly louder volume. Keep gradually until in two weeks, your dog should be able to be continuing excited about the loud thunder noises.
Of course, for some dogs, digital audio is very different from real-life audio, and if your dog has already shown signs of fear during storms, it will require more patience to counter-condition him. So instead, you could consider getting prescribed some anti-anxiety meds like trazadone to use and give them ahead of the predicted storm. More permanent anxiety solutions could be to have an acupuncture implant on their anxiety points like GV20, or PC9; you’d be surprised how effective they can be!
Please ask your veterinarian for help; Your pet deserves some relief from this storm season.
Dr. Mitsie Vargas is at Orchid Springs Animal Hospital in Winter Haven. She can be reached at drv@osahvets