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Metro Detroit

Experts weigh in on pet anxiety, offer tips

Published May 15, 2014

» click to enlarge «
Ryan McTigue, spokesperson for the Michigan Humane Society, gives extra attention to Mister to help with stress while at the Michigan Humane Society —Rochester Hills Center for Animal Care.

METRO DETROIT — With the storm season rolling in, veterinarians and animal behavioral specialists expect to see a surge in business as pets, especially dogs, exhibit symptoms of profound storm phobia.

While some animals may display minor signs of anxiety, such as clinginess, trembling or whining, those with severe phobias may bark, cry or experience destructive or frantic behavior, according to Marie Hopfensperger, a behavioral specialist and assistant professor at Michigan State University. Dogs are typically referred to Hopfensperger if a primary veterinarian is unable to help with the anxiety. Hopfensperger then looks at the “big picture” and develops a cocktail of sources for treatment, which can include medication and behavior modification. Cats tend to not need treatment for anxiety, but if necessary, Hopfensperger will treat them, she said.

“I would say that dogs certainly exhibit signs of anxiety differently and in a way that demands our attention, as compared to cats that tend to hide when anxious,” Hopfensperger said. “For most dogs, the signs of anxiety happen before the first clap of thunder.”

Whether animals sense the change in barometric pressure or are warned by the gray skies, Hopfensperger said she believes animals may detect thunderstorms before the storm  hits, and their anxiety is not a result of solely loud sounds.

Storm phobia can be a safety risk for animals because they can injure themselves or the home. Separation anxiety is often paired with storm phobias, and when the two instances collide, an animal’s behavior can become  a “worst case scenario,” Hopfensperger said.

While each animal is considered an individual, Charlotte Kim, a veterinarian at Five & Two Pet Clinic in West Bloomfield, said anxiety occurs from a chemical reaction in the brain, and she believes that in addition to how animals are trained, there is a genetic component to an animal’s anxiety. Kim is the third owner of a golden retriever, and in order to decrease the dog’s separation anxiety, she put in years of training by slowly increasing the length of time she left the dog alone. Kim said she does believe training helps most of the time, but she will also prescribe anti-anxiety medications like Xanex.

For animals with severe anxiety, Hopfensperger and Kim suggest taking the animal to a veterinarian sooner rather than later for the pet’s safety. Kim said she has seen dogs that have run through windows because of heightened anxiety levels.

“Medications may be prescribed and quite helpful for more moderately or severely affected dogs,” Hopfensperger said. “As far as other products, ThunderShirts or anxiety wraps — things available online or over the counter — are for mildly affected animals.”

ThunderShirts are designed to give a constant gentle pressure, or hugged feeling, that relaxes animals, Kim said. Pheromone sprays can also be used for mild cases.

“I like (ThunderShirts) because it’s (not) medicine you have to give, but it’s more a physical thing you can try,” she added.

Looking at the behavior modification component of separation anxiety and storm phobias, Hopfensperger said it’s better to redirect animals rather than reward their anxious behavior, and to decrease disparity between when owners are home with a pet and when they are away.

“Don’t give them constant attention — petting — to reward them for calm, independent behavior,” Hopfensperger said.

Providing adequate daily exercise can help so the pet doesn’t experience feeling pent-up or bored. When owners leave the house, Hopfensperger said, it is important to decrease interaction with an animal 15-20 minutes before departure and to make the departure, as well as returning, as calm and uneventful as possible.

It is uncertain what causes separation anxiety, but Kim and Hopfensperger wonder if some anxiety occurs when dogs are rehomed.

Animals experience high levels of anxiety while at shelters, according to Ryan McTigue, public relations coordinator for the Michigan Humane Society. He said it’s hard to tell if animals are more anxious during thunderstorms while at the shelter because the animals have a difficult time “coming out of their shell.”

“These are animals who deserve to be in homes. … We try to get them into a foster home to feel more comfortable,” he said.

McTigue suggested giving animals, especially those who have been adopted, a secure, comfortable area in the home during high-stress situations. Because animals can run away when scared, he said it is imperative that pet owners purchase a collar with proper identification or even have the animal “microchipped.”

If animals that aren’t wearing proper identification are picked up by animal control or the Humane Society, they are immediately scanned for microchips, he added.

To find a behavioral specialist, visit or To contact the veterinary teaching hospital at Michigan State University, call (517) 252-5420 or visit

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