*Story written for Women’s Edition Cuddly Critters: https://www.womensedition.com/insidethisedition
Between crashing thunderstorms, tornado sirens, and celebratory fireworks, summer can wreak havoc on an anxious dog. Symptoms of pet anxiety can include trembling, tucking the tail, hiding, diarrhea, barking, urinating, howling, chewing, disinterest, and escape behaviors such as digging and scratching at exit points. Agitated animals may also lick and nip at themselves (leading to skin sores) or get injured while trying to flee.
Fear is an instinct that manifests in all animals—humans included—and can be caused by everyday stressors. When an animal perceives a threat (real or imagined), the “freeze, fight, or flight” response is triggered. If an animal is already suffering from separation anxiety (which includes about 14 percent of dogs across America), perceived threats can develop into phobias, which are fears based on a specific stimulus.
Thunderstorms and fireworks are the two most common phobias for pets. Typically, phobias develop in the formative age, between one and three years. On occasion, separation anxiety can form between 8 and 10 months, or as a symptom of aging. Whether your pet is suffering from separation anxiety or a specific phobia, finding the trigger is essential to helping alleviate the symptoms.
The best way to help prevent anxious behaviors is to modify them using training techniques meant to relax your canine companion. When an animal is exhibiting signs of anxiety, do not encourage the behavior in any way—your pet may interpret this as a reward. Instead, encourage your pet to be calm without reinforcing the fear. During a storm, for example, resume normal activities within the home and participate in an activity that your dog enjoys, like playing ball or cuddling on the couch. Some dogs feel safe when crated, but some do not. Keeping your dog out in the open can sometimes alleviate feelings of being “trapped.” Never punish an animal that is panicking or exhibiting anxious behaviors.
When treated early, counter-conditioning can be a slow yet effective way of treating pet anxiety. If your pet has separation anxiety, for example, exposing your pet to small amounts of alone time and growing from there can lead to a vast improvement in behavior. When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to teach the dog to tolerate being alone without its owners. Your pet may even grow to enjoy it!
As for thunderstorms and other trigger events, be sure that your dog has a “safe” place to hide. This might be a favorite closet, a bathroom, or the basement. Giving your pet free rein to find its “happy place” if it wants to hide can significantly help reduce fear and anxious behaviors. Some dogs, however, benefit from being outside, in the thick of the noise itself, playing ball or being distracted by an activity. If you try this, be sure to stay outside with your dog. If anxious behaviors develop, allow your pet to come indoors.
Turning on the radio or television for background noise indoors can help drown out loud sounds and, potentially, keep your canine calm. Finally, if these tactics don’t help, there are pet body wraps specifically designed to make pets feel safe in triggering situations. The idea is the same as swaddling an infant—that the gentle but constant pressure of the wrap feels like a safe hug. ThunderShirt is a popular brand, but you could even use something like an elastic bandage to wrap your dog.
If your dog’s behavior is still out of control and you prefer the natural route, a relaxing massage or substances like Rescue Remedy or pheromone sprays might be the answer to your pet’s woes. Rescue Remedy is a combination of herbs and flower extracts meant to calm the nerves. Pheromones come in a diffuser and emulate the hormone that mother dogs produce to increase the bond with her puppies. While both are deemed safe and natural, it is always important to consult your veterinarian before beginning any sort of treatment plan.
Your vet will want to rule out any possible medical conditions (for example, thyroid or brain disease) that could be causing the seemingly anxious behavior before starting a treatment plan. Sometimes, lead poisoning and other outside contaminants can cause this type of behavior, as well, so your veterinarian will perform a blood test before administering or prescribing any medication. Medication is typically a last resort and only used in severe cases, particularly during occasions like thunderstorms or fireworks displays. Medicating your dog may make you a bit uncomfortable, but, just like with people, it is sometimes the most effective way to help a pet get through a severe episode of anxiety. If your pet is prescribed any anti-anxiety medication, be sure to follow your vet’s instructions closely.