ISU seminar for pet owners to focus on treating pet thunderstorm anxiety and noise phobias

AMES, Iowa - Although spring is still just wishful thinking, it's not too early to treat pets for anxiety caused by spring and summer thunderstorms, says an Iowa State University veterinarian.

Thunderstorm anxiety and fear of loud, abrupt noises are common behavioral problems reported by pet owners, says Dr. Kim Langholz, a community practice veterinarian at the Dr. W. Eugene and Linda Lloyd Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Iowa State.

"There are things pet owners can do to decrease the amount of anxiety and stress their pets experience during thunderstorms," Langholz said. "And the best time to work with an animal to modify behavioral responses is when thunderstorms aren't forecast for several weeks or months, not during spring and summer when storms seem to materialize out of nowhere."

Langholz will present a seminar, "Thunderstorm Anxiety and Noise Phobias," at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6, in room 2532 Veterinary Medicine building. The one-hour seminar is free and open to the public. Registration is not required. Pets are not allowed at the seminar.

"Dogs are frequently treated for thunderstorm anxiety, but it's also possible for cats to have noise phobias," Langholz said.

When an animal is afraid of noises, it might pant, pace, whine, tremble uncontrollably, hide and try to flee from the frightening sound.

"Although these behaviors may be mildly annoying to the owner the first year, the problems frequently increase to the point where the animal could injure itself and severely damage items in the home," Langholz said.

"Medications can be used to try to decrease the intensity of the pet's response to the stimulus, but behavior modification is necessary to achieve the best possible results," Langholz said.

For example, a dog that is afraid of the noise made by a vacuum cleaner can be gradually exposed to the vacuum when it is off and be taught appropriate relaxation skills. The vacuum is then turned on in another room while the dog continues to relax. Over time, the dog can be in the same room with the vacuum cleaner running and not demonstrate any fearful behaviors.

"In this case, humans can completely control the environment and gradually expose the dog to the fear-inducing stimulus in situations that do not trigger a fear response," Langholz said.

"But thunderstorms are different. Storms are unpredictable and can't be controlled. And the sounds, smells, sights and sensations of storms are nearly impossible to replicate for behavior modification exercises," she said. "So thunderstorm anxiety can be more difficult to treat than other noise phobias."

There are techniques, however. One option is a stress wrap, which applies pressure to the dog to help it feel secure. Also, massage therapy can help a dog relax.

"Another method is a thunderstorm party, which can work to change your dog's view of storms from being frightening to being fun," Langholz said. "Thunderstorm parties consist of loud music, tricks, treats and frolicking around the house. You might feel pretty ridiculous, but the dog has fun and doesn't worry about the storm. It's important to have parties in the off-season to keep the dog looking forward to them and not associate the party with the storm."

Langholz recommends asking your veterinarian for other techniques to modify your pet's reaction to storms. Ask for information about desensitizing your pet and changing the way the animal responds to the noises. Training materials are available. Medication may still be needed, but perhaps at a lower dose or for a shorter period of time.