The loud clap of thunder and the bright flash of lightning can create distress among pets. Both dogs and cats can have separation anxiety when their owners are away.
The symptoms are often the same and can include urinating, defecating, chewing, panting, drooling, pacing, not eating, barking or meowing, trembling or shaking, trying to jump through windows or run away, and hiding, the most common sign in cats.
When you hear the name Phil Blizzard, blustery snowstorms might come to mind. However, the 44-year-old entrepreneur with experience in the auto industry, the dot-com market and local real estate ventures is more interested these days in a different weather phenomenon. Thunderstorms and the frenzied anxiety they often induce in dogs and some cats occupy much of Blizzard's thoughts and business plans.
While trying to help his dog, Dosi, weather her thunderstorm phobia, Blizzard found a simple solution that calmed his pooch and got him brainstorming. Thundershirt, the company born from that inspiration in 2009, markets its snug-fitting, wraparound doggie shirt as a drug-free solution for canine storm phobia.
The business highlights a widely recognized problem among pet owners: storm and separation anxieties that can inspire dogs, and occasionally cats, to pace, howl, cry and scratch and damage furniture, property and caregivers.
As people increasingly brought their pets in from the outdoors and gave them an integral role in family life, veterinarians noticed an uptick in reports of anxieties.
"As the demographics of dog ownership has changed, we don't have dogs out in the back yard so much. They're part of our family," said Barbara L. Sherman, a clinical associate professor and director of Behavioral Medicine Service at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Researchers at N.C. State have been studying separation anxieties and storm phobias among dogs for years. Sherman said cats usually don't show the same levels of anxiety, so people don't pick up on their expressions of distress.
A study commissioned by Blizzard showed that in 1,201 households with nearly 1,960 dogs, nearly 40 percent of people had at least one dog that had exhibited an anxiety issue.
Before the study, Blizzard had been awakened many nights by his poodle and golden retriever mix, Dosi, as thunder rumbled, rain pelted the roof and lightning streaked across the sky.
"I would look up, and a 50-pound dog would be on my chest, and she would be vibrating," Blizzard said.
The dog lover and his wife tried many therapies. They played recordings of thunder at low levels throughout the day to desensitize their pet, but that failed. They tried sedatives, but for the drugs to take effect, the Blizzards had to anticipate a storm an hour ahead of time. The family also worried about side effects, particularly because the dog was unstable on her legs.
Finally, a friend of his wife made a suggestion: Swaddle Dosi in a tight wrap.
The next time it stormed, Blizzard cut up a T-shirt, wrapped it tightly around the pooch with packing tape and waited for the shakes and pacing that typically marked her crazed state. Instead, she stayed calm.
"I was skeptical," Blizzard said. "We didn't know if it was just a fluke, so we tried it several times."
Each time, Dosi was docile.
With his own success story and a knack for business, Blizzard turned to three partners: Chris Ng Cashin, Ben Feldman and Jay Mebane, all graduates of Duke University.
They started marketing Thundershirts in different colors and sizes that fit every dog from a chihuahua to a mastiff. The items are available in some pet stores and online at thundershirt.com. Retail starts at $36.
Sherman urges pet owners to seek treatment for pets with separation anxiety and thunder phobia. Although Thundershirts and similar items might work for some, others might need additional help.
"There are complexities in this problem that have not been fully studied," Sherman said.