It was a dark and stormy night...
Really, it was. Another southern summer thunderstorm was rolling through town, bringing with it booming thunder and sharp lightning, and our cat, Bastian was nowhere to be found.
Our other two cats napped peacefully nearly, but Bastian seemed to have disappeared, maybe even before the storm began. We called him and searched, even shook the treat bag to lure him out, but no Bastian. We finally found him tucked underneath our bed, inside the box spring, wide-eyed and tense.
Storm phobia. It can affect dogs, cats and other pets to varying degrees. Symptoms can include excessive panting or drooling, trembling, rapid heartbeat, shedding, pacing or even destructive behavior as a pet attempts to find a safe spot in the home. You should see the shredded remains of our box spring's underside.
It's normal for animals to exhibit a certain amount of anxiety during extreme weather as a natural, life-preserving instinct. But pets suffering from storm phobia can sometimes elevate this response to unhealthy and unsafe levels. Outdoor pets have been known to jump fences and run away in an attempt to outrun the cause of their fear.
What exactly is the cause? It's different for each pet, but often they are experiencing a hypersensitivity to changes in barometric pressure, static electricity buildup, strong winds and of course bright flashes of lighting and loud cracks of thunder.
If you believe your pet may be suffering from storm phobia, it's important to address the issue with your veterinarian. Untreated, the symptoms can worsen and lead to destructive behavior and chronic stress which can impair your pet's immune system and overall health. In addition, Humanesociety.org offers these helpful tips to help you and your pet cope:
Build a storm bunker: Find a dark, quiet and easily accessible place, like a closet or bathroom, and teach your pet to relax in this safe area during normal weather. Fill the space with bedding, favorite toys and offer treats. An opened kennel nearby can also help. When a storm begins to approach, coax your pet into this safe space and use a fan, television or radio to drown out the noise.
Desensitize: Before storm season, play storm sounds at a low volume once a day. Increase the volume each day, pairing it with commands and rewards, playtime or treats. When storms are expected, start the fun before your pet shows signs of anxiety.
Seek help from medication: Severe phobias sometimes respond well to vet-prescribed medication coupled with behavior modification. Contact our Veterinary Care Center to discuss your pet's specific symptoms and reach out to dog trainer Trish Wamsat for helpful behavior tips.
Create a natural calm: Synthetic products that mimic cat and dog pheromones can alleviate fears. We had some luck with a calming collar for Bastian.
Snuggle up: Thundershirts for dogs and cats apply gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety and fear. We have select sizes available at the SPCA Albrecht Center, or you can find them at pet supply stores and online.
If the fear becomes so severe that your pet bolts and becomes lost, you'll want to make sure you have a microchip in place so he has a much better chance of being returned to you. All of our adoptable pets leave our shelter with a microchip, but it's important to check yearly to make sure your information is current. If your pet is not microchipped, Our Veterinary Care Center offers microchipping for just $25.
For microchips, storm phobia advice, treatment or any other veterinary needs including affordable spaying & neutering, our Veterinary Care Center is open Tuesday - Friday 10:00am - 4:00pm and Saturdays 9:00am - 3:00pm. Visit www.LetLoveLive.org/vetcare or call 803-648-6863, ext. 1.
For dog training, including behavior modification that can help your phobic dog, contact our Phideaux University Headmaster, Trish Wamsat at 803-574-DOGS (3647) or visit www.LetLoveLive.org/training.
In the meantime, bring your four-legged friend out for fairer weather during Wednesday night's Yappy Hour! The dog park and pool will be open, Chris Ndeti will be live on stage and we'll have burgers on the grill and a cash bar. 6:00pm - 9:00pm on the patio.
Sarah Neikam is the Communications & Marketing Director for the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. She is an Aiken native and has been with the SPCA since 2012. Sarah lives in Graniteville with her husband, Tom, mother, Cheryl and three adopted cats: Bastian, Luna and Grady.