Have La Niña’s storms got your furry friend feeling stressed? A UNSW Sydney animal ecologist gives advice on how to help them – and you – get through the dreary days.
Put away your swimmers, because the Bureau of Meteorology have called it: Australia is in for a wet and stormy summer.
This gloomy forecast set to see us through the holidays – caused by seasonal weather event, La Niña – might have you feeling bummed out about all the missed beach days.
But chances are your pet might also be feeling down about the stormy shift, whether it’s a little stress or downright terror.
Dogs might show you they’re not coping by shaking, panting, freezing, or even running away. Fear signals can be subtler in cats, but often involve hiding until the storm passes.
But it’s important not to feel helpless with all these triggers heading your pet’s way this summer – with a bit of patience and care, there are ways you can help them get through it.
Animal ecologist Dr Joy Tripovich, a UNSW Science research fellow with an interest in animal behaviour, welfare and sensory ecology, says these panicked reactions can be completely normal.
“Storms are quite loud, explosive and can happen unpredictably. For an animal, that’s quite scary,” she says.
Storms aren’t the only things sparking fear in our pets, though. Fireworks also involve explosive noises and flashing lights, and Dr Tripovich says they’re one of the most-reported causes of fear in our pets.
Either one of these events are scary enough on their own. But with a La Niña summer and a quickly approaching New Years’ Eve, these holidays are settling in to be – ahem – the perfect storm for our stressed pets.
Weathering the storm
Dr Tripovich says the fear response many animals experience makes sense in nature.
“If you’re out in the wild, you could get struck by lightning, caught in a flash flood or hit by a falling tree,” she says.
“Wild animals often respond to thunder and loud sounds in similar ways to pets, but it can just be harder for us to see as many of them might flee or go into hiding.”
But while a fear of storms and fireworks might be natural for your pet, it doesn’t have to be the norm. In fact, Dr Tripovich says there’s good reason we should support our pets as much as possible during these episodes.
“Long-term stress can be dangerous for our pets,” she says.
“It can lead to conditions such as skin infections, stomach upsets, and can ultimately shorten an animal’s life.”
There’s one key thing that pet owners shouldn’t do when their pets are stressed.
“We definitely shouldn’t yell at or punish our pets when they’re having such a strong reaction,” she says. “Fear is a very primal emotion, and our pets can’t help it.
“Your focus should always be on ways you can support your pet.”
Tips on helping your pet cope
1. Make sure they can’t flee
Pets often try to run away during storms and fireworks, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you – in fact, it can be a normal reaction to a perceived danger.
But running away can be dangerous for the animal, so Dr Tripovich says it’s important to make sure they can’t get out.
“You don’t want them getting out on the road, so make sure the fence or gate is secure,” she says. “If they somehow do escape, you want to ensure they can safely get back home, so make sure they’re wearing their collar and keep your contact details on their microchip up-to-date.”
2. Provide a safe space for your pet
The next step is to give your pet a safe space at home.
“Providing a safe space for your pet is very important,” says Dr Tripovich. “This can either be a room or a crate that you’ve trained them in.”
Whatever space you choose, you can make it feel even safer by obstructing the noises in some way, for example by playing TV or calming music.
“A dark space without many windows could also be beneficial,” she says.
3. Try to tire them out beforehand
If you know fireworks or storms are coming, it can help to first tire out your pet with exercise.
“Exercise can help your pet expend their energy before the storm comes,” says Dr Tripovich. “Tiring a dog out mentally and physically could lead to a calmer dog.”
4. Stay calm
Pets tend to feed off our cues. But if we’re present and calm during the storm or firework episode, we can help reassure them there’s nothing to worry about.
“Animals will cue in on our behaviour,” says Dr Tripovich. “We can help alleviate their stress by not responding to the loud noises in a fearful manner ourselves.”
5. Desensitise them
Desensitising your pet to the stimuli can be another useful stress management technique.
You can do this by playing thunder/firework sounds while your pet is in a good mood – perhaps while enjoying a bone or treat – and in a safe, comfortable environment.
“Desensitisation can be a way of reassuring your pet that nothing bad is going to happen to them when they hear this sound,” says Dr Tripovich. “Although, you would only want to try this technique away from the episode of a storm.”
6. Train them young, if you can
Not all pets get stressed during storms – for example, you might have one dog snoozing happily in their bed while another is panicked and hiding in a corner of the house.
While it’s not fully understood why individual animals respond in certain ways, Dr Tripovich says it could be related to the animals having an early exposure to these loud sounds. So, if you have a puppy or a kitten, you have an extra chance now to help set them up for a stress-free future.
“Early exposure with no negative association is good training for our pets,” says Dr Tripovich. “The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life is the most important time to get them learning about these things. For kittens, it’s even earlier – around seven to eight weeks.”
7. If their fear is strong, see your vet
Lastly, Dr Tripovich says to never forget your first port of call when it comes to your pet’s health: their vet.
“Long term stress is unhealthy, so if your pet is having such a strong reaction to these events, I suggest speaking to your vet,” she says.
“There are a number of other measures that the vet might suggest, for example, pheromones, anti-anxiety medication, or thunderstorm jackets.
Getting rid of your pet’s anxiety isn’t something that can happen overnight.
But with a bit of patience and different management techniques, you may be able to help your furry friend – and yourself – have a more relaxing holiday.