Even before that first thunder boom or lightning bolt some dogs scurry into closets or leap into bathtubs or worse. Some claw desperately at the carpet or injure themselves by crashing through windows. Terrified cats may crouch motionless under a bed for hours or groom themselves excessively, causing bald patches. Fortunately, with advances in treatment and the right reactions from their owners, these pets do not have to suffer. Read on to learn how you can help your anxious pet overcome her fears.
"Fear is a natural response in people and animals," says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, veterinarian and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts. "There is nothing wrong with being afraid of walking on an icy sidewalk, for example, but a fear can grow into a phobia and worsen with each repeated exposure to the stimuli." Dr. Dodman, author of several books, including Dogs Behaving Badly, cautions owners to address minor fears in their pets before they get out of hand.
"Any of the five senses can trigger a phobic response in dogs and cats, but the most common phobia I see and treat is noise phobia," Dr. Dodman says. Noise phobia commonly stems from fear of thunder, although pets can develop this type of phobia from other loud noises as well.
In addition, some pets suffer from intense bouts of separation anxiety when left home alone. They may destroy their owner's favorite pillow, shirt, shoe, or other object that contains the owner's scent.
The most common destructive behavior that dogs with separation anxiety exhibit is destructive escape behavior, in which the pet is trying to reach the owner," notes Dr. Wayne Hunthausen, a veterinarian and behavior consultant in Westwood, Kansas. This behavior can be directed toward doors, windows, walls, or even crate doors.
Often, it can be difficult to identify a cat with separation anxiety, adds Dr. Dodman. "Neighbors do not complain if the cat meows while you are gone because cats do not make loud noises like a barking dog and they usually do not bust through windows or screens," he says. "Instead, cats may pace anxiously. They may urine mark only during your absence."
If your pet suffers from an intense fear or anxiety, you can help:
* Schedule a complete physical examination to rule out any underlying medical problem.
* Discuss your pet's behavior with your veterinarian. This discussion can help pinpoint the specific phobia or phobias your pet has. Like people, pets can have more than one phobia. A cat, for example, may experience both separation anxiety and fearful aggression toward strangers. A dog may fear both thunderstorms and people wearing sunglasses.
* Ask about behavior-modification techniques, which can be extremely effective in helping your pet overcome her fears. These techniques require patience and are best taught by an expert. Your veterinarian can offer advice and may recommend that you consult an animal behaviorist.
* Ask about medication. Your veterinarian can prescribe medication that is designed to help calm pets with phobias.
PROVIDING A DISTRACTION
Never punish a fearful pet by yelling at her or striking her because such actions can worsen her anxieties and phobias. Experts also advise against offering soothing words, added attention, or petting as attempts to reassure your dog or cat. These attempts may backfire and worsen her fears. Instead, speak in upbeat tones, act happy, and divert your pet's attention to a treat or fun activity. "Your goal is to deliver the message that a storm is no big deal," Dr. Dodman explains.
CONQUERING THEIR FEARS: WHAT WORKS
Veterinary staffs usually recommend a combination approach to treating phobias and anxiety that includes the behavior-modification techniques of counter-conditioning and desensitization.
* Desensitization involves gradually exposing a pet to the source of her fear so as not to trigger the fearful response. For a pet with a thunderstorm phobia, that may mean playing a CD of storm noises at a very low volume at first, then increasing the volume in subsequent sessions until the pet is no longer frightened.
* Counter-conditioning involves associating the presence of the trigger with a positive experience such as eating or playing.
For some pets, behavior modification may not be enough to conquer their phobias. In these cases, veterinarians may recommend medication.
For noise-phobic pets or those with separation anxiety, Dr. Dodman also suggests playing music or leaving on the television or radio to muffle scare-provoking sounds such as storms or to break the silence. "Nothing is more distressing to a pet left home alone than the sound of silence," says Dr. Dodman. "Consider recording regular sounds in your house, such as the dishwasher, television, and conversations that may include comments to the pet, such as 'Hey, Brandy, lie down,' and playing these recordings when the pet is home by herself."
It is also vital to reinforce basic obedience commands such as "sit," "down," and "stay" and to introduce a calming signal (for example, a hand gesture that shows your pet that she is safe and can relax). Be sure to provide your pet with tasty treats during these training sessions.
Seeing your beloved pet scared and not knowing what to do can be unsettling. By following the above suggestions, you can help keep her fears in check. Your reward? Peace of mind for both you and your pet.