It's dark. You're huddled under the covers with your dog. He's quivering in fear. He stares blankly as if in a trance. You can hear his panting and his breathing increasing. You're shaking too – your palms are sweaty and you swallow nervously. In a flash the room is lit in bright white, then darkness, a resounding BOOOOOOM!
Thunder and lightning. The number one phobia shared by pet and owner.
This phobia has a name: Astraphobia. Interestingly, the word in Sanskrit means weapon – referring to the belief that the angry gods were sending punishment from the sky.
So you see, you're not alone – ancient civilizations were just as concerned about the menacing strikes from the sky…
While we as humans may be able to rationalize that lightening is very unlikely to strike us, a poor pet cannot make such a grounded judgment. To them, the flash of light and menacing boom create an instant reaction in their nervous system. Blood pumps rapidly around the body elevating temperature greatly. This then leads to frantic panting due to the need to cool down. Some animals try to hide in an attempt to escape the perceived danger, often to the point of bleeding paws. You may even notice a trance like state – your animal seems glassy-eyed and unable to 'connect' with you. This is the height of their stress, and the height of anxiety. They are freaked out so much that they literally go onto 'autopilot'.
So what can be done to ease their panic?
Step 1: Desensitization:
Slowly get your pet used to the thunder and lightening. Introduce the sound of thunder and pairing it with a positive reinforcement – i.e: a treat and/or lots of praise. Play a sound clip of thunder very softly and slowly increasing the volume, all the while giving lots of treats and praise. This is a very gradual and gentle process. Do not rush your pet through it. You should only move up to the next volume level when your pet is 100% comfortable with the level below. This process should take weeks if done correctly – if rushed you can traumatize your pet further. If you have any doubt, discuss the matter with your vet or call in an animal behaviourist who can help.
Step 2: Calm them with Pet Calm:
During thunderstorms, a little Pet Calm can go a long way in calming a nervous and scared pet. Simply give your pet a pinch or two at the first signs of a thunderstorm and repeat the dosage every half hour if necessary. You can also use the Pet Calm while doing desensitizing training.
Step 3: Avoid re-enforcing the behaviour:
By cuddling and cooing over your scared dog, you are suggesting that there is something to be afraid of. Instead, do your best to ignore your pet’s scared behaviour, and praise him or her when they start acting normal or when they do not respond with fear.
Step 4: Set up a new routine:
It’s important to be consistent with your response to your pet during a thunderstorm, so make sure the whole family does the same thing. It may help if you turn up the TV or radio to mask the sound of the thunder. Many pets also get a lot of comfort if they can be close to the rest of the family. Try setting up a bed close to the family during a thunderstorm if possible so that your pet can see that everyone else is calm and content. Most importantly, stay calm too - as pets quickly pick up on our anxieties.