Help! The Sky is Falling!
(An article on thunder-phobic pets)
By Kathy Edstrom
And the dog makes a dash...
For the bed, the basement, his crate, the bathtub, behind the toilet...and the list goes on. For those of us who have a noise sensitive pooch or cat, we know our animal companion’s favorite hiding place.
March through October is prime thunderstorm season. This is usually the busiest time of year for my business. Animals that have no fear of pots and pans banging, trucks backfiring, babies screaming, even fireworks and gunshots can be extremely fearful when storms approach.
So why is “thunder phobia” so common among canines and felines? Some hypothesize that because of their keen sense of smell, dogs and cats can detect changes within the atmosphere.
Before I get into how animals can be helped with noise sensitivities, particularly thunder, I’d like to talk about what lightning and thunder are.
What is lightning?
Lightning is created by a large gathering of electrical charges in the clouds. The negative charges are drawn to the bottom of the cloud which in turn are attracted to the positive charges on the ground. Typically the tallest object on the ground will attract a lightning strike. This is precisely why we should never seek shelter under a tree or stay on a lake during a storm or remain in an open area. The negative charges in the cloud will automatically be drawn to the closest positive charges on the ground, which could be you!
According to the National Weather Center, “When the difference between negative and positive charges becomes sufficiently strong, the normal insulating qualities of the air break down and a lightning bolt strikes.”
What causes thunder?
Meteorologists define thunder as a “loud noise that occurs when atmospheric gases are suddenly heated by a discharge of lightning...thunder is made up of a series of sound vibrations caused by lightning strikes.”
As you can see, there are many scientific explanations as to how and why thunder and lightning occur, but this doesn’t explain why so many of our animal companions are fearful of these meteorological events.
I’ve spoken on several occasions about thunder-phobic pets. No two animals are the same. Some pets are afraid of lightning. Some are afraid of the thunder. Some are afraid of the wind and others are frightened by the rain.
Thunder phobic dogs
From my experience gained from working with pets that have these fears, I have observed many that are able to back chain the changes in weather. Dogs that used to only be afraid of thunder, have been able to make the association that when there is lightning, thunder will follow. They can go further and associate the changes in wind speed, with rain and rain with lightning and lightning with thunder. This is often when the fears worsen. Not only is the dog afraid of thunder, but he now becomes fearful when the wind picks up, the rain begins and the lightning flashes across the sky. He is able to back chain the events. He knows that when the wind picks up, a frightening sound is going to rumble the ground below his feet.
For extremely sensitive animals, I have known dogs that can literally sense the changes in barometric pressure when there is a storm approaching. They can smell the ozone produced by the electricity in the air.
Watch your dog sometime if he’s out in the yard when a storm is approaching. There is a very good chance he will be sniffing the air. He can pick up atmospheric changes just by sniffing. Remember to not leave your pets outside when a storm is brewing unless they have a safe shelter for protection.
For dogs that are terrified by storms, this can become a paralyzing scenario for them.
I’d like to share with you a couple of personal stories about dogs in my life that were severely thunder phobic.
Bear was my parents’ Black lab mix. He was a very gentle soul and was unphased by most things except food. He loved food and would do just about anything for it!
As Bear started to approach his senior years he developed a mild fear of thunderstorms. He would shake and pant but he did not go into a complete state of fear. As he grew older, the fears became more intense. He became so terrified that Bear would often wedge himself behind the toilet, sometimes he’d climb into the bathtub and other times he would pace and pant, shake and continue to look for places to hide.
Sedatives are the most commonly prescribed medications for dogs and cats with noise sensitivities in general.
My mom wanted to help Bear, but she did not know what to do, so she spoke with Bear’s veterinarian and he prescribed Ace Promazine. Its mode of action is only partially understood but it involves blockage of dopamine nerve receptors in the brain. It causes tranquilization. The problem with Ace is that some animals seem to be able to be alert long enough to respond to perceived threats, then slip back into a sedated state. This is exactly what happened to Bear.
The Ace Promazine put Bear into a state of confusion. He was still terrified and was still acting out when the storms approached. Bear was so terrified and was so confused from being in a drugged state that one time he tore down the shower curtain and got tangled up in it; which created more panic. Another time Bear almost fell down a flight of stairs from being in a “drugged” state caused by Ace Promazine. This medication did not completely sedate him, but rather put him into a state where he could not function properly. He was still very aware of his surroundings, but could not respond appropriately. He was unstable when he walked and that’s why being around any stairs was such a dangerous thing. Over the years Bear’s veterinarian continued to recommend the use of Ace and recommended my parents increase the dosage.
Sadly, Bear passed away before I became educated in flower essence remedies. Had I been working with flower essences, Bear could have avoided those unpleasant times and hopefully had been able to live through the storms in a much less agitated state.
My German shepherd, Virgo is the reason I became educated in flower essence remedies. When he was two years old he too developed an intense fear of thunder. At that time I was studying with a holistic veterinarian who used flower essences extensively in her animal practice. When I told her about Virgo’s issues, she immediately prepared a custom blend of flower essences for him. I specifically remember the three essences that she put in his blend: Aspen, Mimulus and Rock Rose. I didn’t know anything about flower essences or how they worked, but I was willing to try anything; anything that would not tranquilize him and put him into a severe state of confusion like had happened to Bear.
Within two weeks of Virgo receiving the flower essences my husband and I saw some very significant changes in Virgo’s behavior. When there was a flash of lightning, he didn’t pace as much. When thunder sounded, Virgo got up, but he didn’t shake or try to glue himself to me like he had in the past.
The veterinarian advised that I keep Virgo on his blend for at least six months. I followed her instructions exactly. With each passing month that Virgo received his essences, he reacted less and less to storms. He also didn’t react to fireworks or gun shots. The entire time Virgo was receiving his blend, he was a healthy, fully functioning dog. He was never in a sedated state. It was wonderful! I did not have to worry about him injuring himself because he was not tranquilized. It was during that time that I made the decision to study flower essences and become a certified flower essence practitioner.
I have worked with many wonderful dogs and cats that experienced a variety of noise sensitivities. The owners of these pets did not want to put their animal companions through the same terror that Bear and many other dogs experienced by being sedated. They were patient and willing to allow the flower essences to work over time.
Flower essences are not a cure. They certainly are not a quick fix. I like to use the analogy of an onion.
Layers around the root of the problem
Picture the root of the problem – fear of thunder.
- As time goes on, the fear worsens if it is not dealt with during the early stages.
- Over time the animal develops survival skills which get layered over the problem – fear of thunder.
- The survival skills may consist of pacing and panting; hiding in the bathroom, under the bed, in the basement or clinging to his caretaker for dear life. (I have worked with some very fearful dogs that injured their humans because of their extreme terror.)
- As the dog (and yes, even cats) rehearse these perceived survival skills, these actions become ingrained in their repertoire of behaviors and the layers continue to build as the fear gets deeper rooted in the abyss of their psyche.
The issue that I take with sedating an animal is that it truly does not get to the root of the problem. It is only medicating the symptoms. If the animal does well on medication, in the majority of cases, the animal will need the medication every time it storms. What if the pet owner isn’t around and a storm strikes? What happens to the animal then?
With flower essences, it is a process. Flower essences “peel the layers of the onion”. With each layer that was surrounding the initial problem – fear of thunder, the flower essences work on the animal’s emotional state.
As the flower essences do their work, the animal becomes less agitated by the initial problem – fear of thunder. The level of reactivity to the problem decreases and the animal becomes calmer and doesn’t have the same sense of fear that he originally had before he began receiving flower essence remedies.
This is not a magic potion. From my experience, most animals respond quite favorably to flower essences, but in some cases where the issues are so deeply rooted where the animal has rehearsed specific behaviors for an extended period of time, flower essences did not help. Genetics also plays a big part in this. We can always modify behavior, but we can’t change temperament. We can pick our friends, but we can’t choose our family. In other words, depending on the animal’s genetic background, she might be predisposed to being a fearful animal by nature. When this is the case, we oft times are limited to what we can do. If the animal is truly suffering from an extreme state of anxiety, medications might be the only solution.
There are many wonderful, non-invasive modalities that are available to help us and our animal companions. Before automatically resorting to medication, talk with your veterinarian or trainer to find out if there is another option available for your fearful pet. Medications usually treat the symptoms, not the problem itself. There can also be side effects to be aware of. There are no side effects with flower essence remedies and they work on getting to the root of the problem, not masking the symptoms.
If you are interested in trying flower essences or any of the other wonderfulcooperative care methods for your pet, talk with your veterinarian. She might be able to direct you to a certified practitioner in the field you are interested in.
May this spring season bring you and your animal companion many blossoms of great health!
Published Spring/Summer 2006