SIOUX CITY | The boom of thunder and crash of lightning during a storm are explainable phenomena to humans, but to a dog, they can be terrifying.
Dr. Aaron Bessmer, of Elk Creek Animal Hospital in Sioux City, has heard many stories of thunderstorm anxiety in dogs during his years as a veterinarian.
“I actually had one dog that broke out of its kennel and broke out of a plate glass window during a storm,” he said. “They don’t like the noise and they don’t like the way the barometric pressure changes."
So, what can the owner of an anxious animal do?
Bessmer suggests behavior modification by offering treats and reassurance during stormy weather.
“You don’t want to act too different because you don’t want them to think something’s up, but you want to reassure them that everything’s OK,” he said.
Taking the dog to an interior room without windows and playing music or watching television to help muffle the sound can help, too. Giving the dog Benedryl also can help them to relax.
“It takes the edge off,” said Bessmer. “It makes them sleepy and it’s very safe.”
There also are calming treats made especially for dogs that can help, as long as they contain tryptophan.
“Most of the calming treats are safe,” said Bessmer. “They have tryptophan in them to make the dog sleepy.”
Tryptophan is the amino acid found in turkey that causes lethargy. Calming treats aren’t a miracle cure, though.
“If your dog is really anxious, it’s probably not going to help,” he said. “If they are a little anxious, however, it might help.”
Another option is the swaddle-like Thundershirt, a shirt that wraps tightly around the dog creating a sense of security.
“Thundershirts are awesome,” said Bessmer. “They work on about 7 out of 10 dogs. You don’t want to just put it on during the thunderstorm, though, because they start anticipating the storm when they see the shirt.”
Bessmer recommends putting the Thundershirt on the dog periodically to get them comfortable in it and able to associate it with things other than storms.
If these things don’t work, prescription anti-anxiety medication and sedatives might have to be used.
“I try to use anti-anxiety medicine over sedatives because with sedatives they’re still nervous, they’re just too sleepy to react,” Bessmer said. “Just like everything else, though, there is no end-all be-all answer.”
Most dogs end up needing a variety of treatments to fix the problem, he said. Also, there is no specific breed or size that has a predisposition to thunderstorm anxiety, Bessmer said.
“I’ve seen it in all breeds, big dogs and tiny dogs,” he said. “People also tend to think that it’ll get better as they get older, but it almost always gets worse if you don’t do anything.”