Thunderstorm phobias are a common occurrence in dogs and can result in significant stress to both the pet and the owner. Oftentimes the phobia relates to the noises associated with storms, but can also be due to changes in barometric pressure, wind blowing objects through the air, static electricity, or rain itself. Signs of storm phobias can range in intensity from mild (hiding) to severe (destruction of objects in the house, self-trauma).
During periods of distress, avoid comforting your pet, as this rewards undesirable behavior. In addition, do not punish your pet for these behaviors. Instead, focus on getting him to perform known commands, such as sitting, or play a game with him. Get your pet away from windows and in a quieter area of the house. Noise in the background, such as a radio or TV, can help distract from the noise of the storm as well.
Long term treatment of storm phobias involves desensitization and counter-conditioning. Desensitization is possible for pets who are afraid of the noises associated with storms, but may not be possible for other factors, such as changes in barometric pressure. It is helpful to do this training during the times of year when we do not expect storms, so that the more intense stimulus of an actual storm does not derail your efforts. An audio CD* of thunderstorms can be purchased, or a recording can be made during an actual storm. The sound should be played constantly at a level low enough that it does not cause any distress to your pet. During this time, playing with your pet and offering treats for performing a known command (e.g. sit) can help form a positive association with the storm noise and treats or play. Over time, gradually increase the volume of the noise until your pet is comfortable.
Many pets are so distressed by storms that they may require medication(s) to assist with behavior modification. Short term anti-anxiety medications can be used prior to an anticipated storm to reduce anxiety and relax your pet. For more severely affected pets, or for pets that suffer from other types of anxiety (e.g. separation anxiety), long term medications may be required. These are given on a daily basis and may take weeks to reach effective levels. These medications can help with desensitization treatment as well. In some cases, a mild sedative may be needed as well.
Other products that can help relieve stress are Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) or the Thundershirt. DAP is a synthetic pheromone that mimics the scent released by the mammary glands of a nursing dog. It can help decrease stress along with the other treatments, but should not be used as a sole treatment. The Thundershirt is a pressure wrap that applies a gentle consistent pressure to the dog’s torso. Anecdotal evidence from other veterinarians shows that it may work in some dogs.
If your pet suffers from thunderstorm phobia, please make an appointment to discuss the condition with us. Although long term treatment can be time and labor intensive, by working together, we can construct a plan to help make your pet (and you) much more comfortable around storms.
*Audio CDs can be purchased from the following websites: