Storms and dogs

2013-10-17 00:00

THE United States has come a long way in the past few decades with regards to increased pet ownership and decreased euthanasia. From 1970 to 2010, the number of dogs and cats in homes increased from 67 million to an estimated 164 million. The number of dogs and cats euthanased decreased from roughly 16 million to an estimated 4 million.

These figures were compiled from the 2013–2014 Appa National Pet Owners’ Survey and estimated by the Humane Society of the United States, using statistics provided by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.

I am using these figures as a reference due to the unavailability of statistics in South Africa. There are myriad reasons for these animal deaths and, needless to say, the numbers are extremely sad and mind-boggling. Since we are heading towards summer, I would like to touch on one of the causes of many dog deaths, astraphobia, or a fear of thunder.

I have learnt over the years that one can only understand the canine mind and specialise in curing problems after having spent many hours studying behaviour. Nowadays, when seeing the words “expert” and “research”, one immediately becomes wary of the content. However, I recently came across an interesting study on the physiological effects of thunderstorms on dogs.

This non-invasive study was among the first to measure the production of a specific stress hormone produced by both dogs and owners in response to stress in their homes. To measure cortisol (stress hormone) responses, researchers exposed 19 dog owners and their storm-phobic pets to a five-minute recording of a thunderstorm in their own territories. The dogs included five golden retrievers, a corgi, a keeshond, a border collie, a Labrador retriever and 10 mixed-breed dogs over eight kilograms.

Dogs living in multi-dog households recorded significantly less overall change in cortisol levels, versus dogs that lived in single-dog households. In the multi-dog homes, there was also a quicker and complete return to normal after the listening session. Researchers were quick to add that the study does not prove that acquiring more dogs is a cure option. It was also found that sympathetic owners did not lower the stress reaction levels and this is one aspect with which I concur wholeheartedly.

Many owners have told me of serious and sad incidents involving pets that could not cope with thunder. Frantic barking, hiding, shaking or slavering are quite common and may be non-destructive. More severe though, is escaping from properties, and the destruction of household items. Sam, a three-year-old male boerbul cost his owners about R15 000 after causing damage at three different houses while attempting to gain access. Rio, a female German shepherd, gained access to her home by breaking two rivets on an expanding security gate. Shep, a 12-month-old white Swiss shepherd cross Labrador, damaged a meranti stable door so badly it needed replacing. These are three of the more serious cases that I have dealt with and I was successful in curing all of them.

The main cause of astraphobia is normally a lack of exposure to thunder during the critical imprinting period. I use artificial methods to provide for certain aspects of thunder-storm imprinting. This process must be handled carefully, otherwise pups may be sensitised, instead of desensitised. Another consideration is that dogs can become phobic even though adequate imprinting did occur. This is simply because it has learnt to mimic the behaviour of another phobic pet.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted at Advice is dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and pets.

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