Ask The Vet

Some studies have shown that dogs with separation anxiety have higher chances of developing thunderstorm phobias. PHOTOS: ANDREW KWOK

SINGAPORE -In this fortnightly column, veterinarians from the National Parks Board answer questions about pet health and behaviour.

Stormy weather spooks Coco

Why is our pet dog Coco always afraid during thundery and stormy weather?

She reacts to bad weather by running upstairs and insists on being close to us, and she also urinates out of fear.How do we calm her and teach her to be independent downstairs, especially during stormy nights?

Andrew Kwok

Thunderstorm phobias in dogs happen for many reasons and can occur at any age.

Genetics, traumatic experiences or poor socialisation when young can contribute to the development of such phobias.

Some studies have shown that dogs with separation anxiety have higher chances of developing thunderstorm phobias, although this does not mean that all thunderstorm phobias are related to an anxiety or behavioural disorder.

A vet or animal behaviourist can help evaluate if your dog requires treatment for a more general condition or if it is sufficient to just address the noise phobia.

Bear in mind that thunder may not be the only trigger that invokes fear of storms.

Changes in lighting, humidity, wind speed and barometric pressures can also lead to fear responses, since these elements predict the arrival of a storm.

Hence, simply removing the sound stimuli may not always work for every dog with thunderstorm phobia, and it is necessary to determine the specific triggers before formulating a treatment plan.

The most common treatment strategy is to limit your dog's exposure to the stimuli by creating a safe and secure indoor environment, so it will not be able to hear the rain, wind or thunder.

You may also use soothing music or a white noise machine to mask the outdoor noises and to calm your dog.

I noticed Coco has ear covers. Headphones and earmuffs for dogs are helpful in blocking out some of these loud noises.

There are also body wraps, or thundershirts, that may help a dog feel more secure in such situations.

Rather than leaving your dog alone while it is anxious, it may be more effective to be with it and comfort it, using long smooth pats and allowing body contact to help it relax.

It is not possible to worsen your dog's fear by helping it cope better. This is actually a form of counter-conditioning, where the storm is associated with attention and comfort.

However, a more powerful reinforcement - such as feeding your dog its favourite treat just after the trigger is presented and during the course of the storm - is usually required to help it overcome its fear.

Desensitisation is another common treatment strategy that is often paired with counter-conditioning.

This is where the dog is exposed to a low level of thunder sound recordings that will not bring on the phobic response.

As it learns to cope better, you may gradually increase the volume of the recordings. However, this approach works only if sound is the sole trigger of the phobia.

Providing distraction during a thunderstorm may also help. Playing with your dog or providing a treat while it is exposed to a low level of the negative stimuli may achieve a positive association between the stimuli and treats.

You can gradually increase the intensity of the stimuli, should you achieve some success.

It is important to never punish fearful behaviour, as that will only worsen the level of distress.

It takes experience and knowledge to implement these treatment strategies, so it may be helpful to consult a professional behaviourist to guide you through the steps.

There are also medications that may help you manage a dog's anxiety or fearful behaviour.

These drugs are often used in combination with the above techniques. A vet will be able to advise whether your dog requires such medications.

Finally, owners should understand that the outcome we are often seeking is not a cure, but an improvement in helping our pets cope better with phobia.

This takes time, patience and requires experimenting with multiple methods.

Answers by Dr Han Zi Yang, a senior veterinarian at the Animal & Veterinary Service and proud owner of two mixed-breed rabbits, Nolla and Tubby.

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