How to ease a pet's stress after a natural disaster

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The do's and don'ts of helping a frightened pet

In the midst of a major disaster, pets can easily become stressed. Dogs and cats thrive on comfort and familiarity, and natural disasters often bring a whole host of unfamiliar sights and sounds.

Strange smells, sudden loud noises, water where it shouldn’t be, and other out-of-the-norm experiences can frighten pets. And try as a loving pet owner might, it’s next to impossible to explain to a dog or cat what is happening and that it’s over now.

To comfort pets who may have been rattled by Hurricane Harvey or Irma, it’s important for pet owners to understand how pets perceive disasters and learn what they seek as comfort, says Clive Wynne, an Arizona State University professor of psychology.

Signs of distress

Signs your pet may be stressed after a disaster include:

  • Exhibiting avoidance behavior. Avoiding people or other dogs, not making eye contact, hiding, tail tucking, or turning away.
  • Abnormal panting. If it’s not especially hot and your dog is panting with its ears pinned back and low, your dog could be experiencing some stress.
  • Frequent yawning. Paired with either of the above behaviors, frequent yawning can be attributed to stress.
  • Destructive behaviors. In an attempt to ease their stress, your dog may try to bite you or other objects. If the aggressive behavior is followed by abnormal facial expressions, frightened body posture, or submissive behaviors, it’s highly likely that your dog is nervous.

Avoid tight hugging

A reunion between two people often involves a warm embrace, but most pets don’t enjoy tight hugs as much as humans, says Wynne.

“It may be tempting to hug a dog or cat tightly when you are distressed, especially if you have become separated. But not all animals enjoy being hugged,” said Wynne, who is a dog behavior scientist.

“Very tight hugging may cause an animal to panic. We are different species, and we have different ways of expressing ourselves.”

Restore familiarity

So what should you do to help a distressed pet when their world has seemingly been turned upside down? Make an effort to put it right side up again.

“Safety equals familiarity," says Wynne. "As soon as possible, help pets feel safe by restoring their familiar world. This includes the social world, where reunion with beloved family members is very important, but also the physical world."

Pet owners who were displaced by Hurricane Harvey or Irma should try to bring some of the objects from the pet’s home world, if possible. Familiar toys, bedding, food bowls, and other comfort objects can help ease a pet’s stress in times of turmoil. Owners should also walk thier dogs in less crowded places after a trauma.

If your dog doesn’t snap back to their usual self following a stressful event, consult with your vet to discuss a plan for getting your pet back to normal.

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