Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs

Thunderstorm phobias are one of the most common behavior challenges seen in dogs all over the world, but here in Florida with our nearly daily thunderstorms, this can be a serious problem that affects the overall quality of life of our pets. As with all behavior problems, thunderstorm phobias can be difficult and frustrating to manage.

Phobias, by definition, are irrational fears leading to the compelling desire to avoid the source of fear. Unfortunately for some, this means breaking out of the home or familiar enclosure and is a big contributor to the higher number of lost and/or injured pets during thunderstorm seasons.

Fear Triggers:

The reasons so many dogs react with fear to thunderstorms are not well understood, but we do know that there are many factors involved.

The loud boom of thunder during a storm is considered a major player. If a storm is uncomfortably loud for people imagine the heightened intensity of noises with our pets, who already have super-sensitive hearing.

Other storm-associated triggers may include flashes of lightning, strong winds, the pounding of heavy rain, changes in barometric pressure, presence of ozone in the air (a side effect of lightning, ozone has a subtle metallic odor), and buildup of static electricity. Even a mild shock from static can be enough to startle a dog who is already suffering from increased awareness during a storm.

Typical Behaviors: All dogs are individuals and may exhibit different behaviors in response to fear and anxiety in varying severity.

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Restlessness, Pacing
  • Drooling, Lip licking
  • Dilated pupils
  • Attention seeking -sitting close by, leaning or trying to climb on people or other pets
  • Barking, whining, or howling
  • Hiding in small places – under tables, behind chairs, in closets or bathrooms
  • Destructiveness – chewing walls or furniture, clawing or digging at floors or doors
  • Excessive panting
  • Trying to escape – jumping through windows, digging out of yards, running away
  • Biting or aggressive behaviors – severe fear in pets can lead to aggressive behaviors -fights with other pets and biting may be resorted to if pets feel threatened while they are already anxious


Management and Treatment

The good news is a number of tips and products to help deal with this common problem. The bad news is – figuring out which ones work for your dog is largely a matter of trial and error. In many cases, a combination of techniques and products may be necessary to achieve any significant change in phobic behavior. As with many behavior issues in dogs, patience, time, and creativity are key elements in helping your pet deal with thunderstorm phobias.

1. Be available: People’s presence during a storm is not a remedy in and of itself, but most dogs tend to panic more when they are alone. If you are at home, the pet’s reaction can be monitored and you are less likely to return to surprise destruction from an anxious pet. Of course, no one can be home 24 hours a day, but having a neighbor or pet sitter on call for a severely anxious pet may be helpful. For some dogs, the presence of a calm dog can be reassuring. For others, the presence of other animals – especially those seeking attention from already anxious pets can lead to aggressive behavior.

2. Be Calm: Dogs respond to our body language and emotional response to situations. An anxious dog may be calmed to some degree by the presence of a calm person. Despite inner feelings of frustration and anxiety over the dog’s behavior, it is essential to avoid showing anger, frustration, or exasperation during a storm. With your attitude and body language, you want to convey a sense of calm, in effect letting your pet know that you are not worried, so they should follow suit. Reacting angrily to a pet’s anxiety, accidents, or destructive behaviors while the pet is affected may worsen the situation and start to break down the bond you have with your pet. If every time you interact with your pet, you are upset, that is the reaction they will come to expect.

There is some debate as to whether comforting an anxious dog during a storm is helpful. The conflicting ideas are that if you reward the anxious behavior with attention, you are reinforcing such behavior and it will be repeated. Ideally, if the pet is acting out to seek attention, such behavior should be ignored, once the pet realizes they do not get the attention they are seeking from anxious behavior, it will eventually stop. The problem with this theory is that the fear your pet is dealing with is irrational, and it is very difficult to apply rational thinking to an irrational problem.

All pets are individuals and will respond differently. Some pets will seek out a person to be close to, others will remove themselves from a social situation. While it is ok to be available for comfort and reassurance, seeking your pet out to settle them during a storm is not necessary. It is important to be available if the dog chooses, but being solicitous, overprotective, or making a production of the pet’s fear will likely worsen the situation.

3. Change Your Dog’s Perceptions: If we could sit our pets down and explain to them that the thunderstorm is not going to hurt them and that it will pass, life would be so much easier. Even though some dogs understand verbal commands, they communicate more effectively with body language and cause/effect relationships than words. There are ways to communicate to your pet that an anxious or stressful response to storms is not necessary.

The two techniques generally employed are called desensitization and counter-conditioning. They are closely related and most often used together. This may be a familiar concept as it is widely used in behavior training and modification.

Desensitization involves repeated exposure of an object or situation in a neutral way to reduce the anxiety or fear associated with it. The fear trigger should be introduced with gradually increasing intensity over time, allowing the pet to become “used to” the presence of that trigger. With thunderstorms, we obviously cannot predict the weather or provide all of the stimuli (barometric pressure changes, lightning, static, etc.), but we can use the sound associated with thunderstorms such as thunder, rain, and wind. Noises can be downloaded off the internet and played on a computer, or
products like the following can help:

    • Canine Noise Phobia Series –Victoria Stillwell
    • CalmAudio –Sound Desensitization CD for Dogs
    • Sounds Good Audio CD –Legacy Canine Behavior and Training

Start with the noise playing in a different room where it can be barely heard. As long as your pet does not respond with anxiety or fear, the intensity can be increased slowly until the pet no longer responds to the noise. This process will take time and patience, for some, weeks or months will be necessary. It is possible for this step to be done incorrectly or too quickly which can result in a worsening of the fearful behavior to the sounds. Contact your local veterinarian or veterinary behavior professional for help.

Counter conditioning involves changing your dog’s emotional reaction to a scary or unpleasant experience. Once your pet no longer responds with fear to thunder and rain noises, pair the thunderstorm noises with a pleasurable stimulus – attention, play, treats, or toys. If every time thunder is heard, your pet gets a special treat, instead of expecting bad things, they may learn to associate good things with storms.

These techniques can be very helpful for dogs with mild to moderate fears, but it is unlikely to be as successful for dogs with severe phobias. Severely affected pets may still respond but may require additional professional help.

A word about flooding: Flooding has been made popular by some television personalities claiming expertise in dog behavior. Flooding is the technique of exposing an animal to what it is fearful of until it realizes that there is no reason to be afraid. The veterinary community considers this technique inhumane and unethical in most circumstances and discourages its use.

4. Change The Inside Environment: You cannot change the weather outside, but you can change the environment inside to help your pet feel safe.

  • Close curtains, blinds, or drapes to reduce the visual impact of stormy weather.
  • Turn inside lights on if becomes especially dark or if the storm occurs at night.
  • Having the TV or radio on in the background can help act as a distraction.
  • White noise – may help mask the sounds of a storm. Sound machines, smartphone apps, and other devices are commercially available sold as human products to help people sleep.
  • Playing soothing music has been found to reduce stress, noise sensitivity, and reactivity in people and pets.
    • Through a dog’s ear
    • Pet Pause
    • Pet Acoustics
    • Soft, classical music
  • Lavender Aromatherapy: The scent of lavender has been proven in human medicine to have a calming and anti-anxiety effect. Research in dogs and cats is ongoing but is proving to have positive results. Plain lavender essential oil is recommended and can be placed on collars, leashes, carriers, bandanas, anxiety wraps, and bedding. Application is recommended daily and in situations when anxiety or stress is anticipated. Concentrated oils may be irritating and should never be applied directly to the skin or ingested orally.
  • Pheromone therapy: Pheromones are used in a variety of applications to influence animal emotions and behaviors. Adaptil ®: A product for dogs contains a substance called “dog appeasing pheromone.” The active ingredient in Adaptil is a synthetic version of the pheromone produced by nursing female dogs. Canine pheromones are available in a spray, plug-in diffuser, wipe, and continuous-release collar.

5. Provide A Safe Haven: Many pets will seek out a quiet, dark, out-of-the-way place on their own during a storm. This may be a closet, bathroom, behind or under furniture. Rather than discourage retreat, enhance it by setting up the most comfortable and safest place in your home using the area your pet has already chosen. Furnish this area with your pet’s favorite bedding, toys, and other familiar items that may provide comfort. Remove any hazards or items that could be damaged if knocked over or chewed on. Your pet should have access to this safe haven at all times both while you are home and when home alone. It is important to take precautions to ensure your pet cannot become inadvertently trapped or locked in this area, potentially inducing more fear and anxiety when they cannot get out.

6. Use Crates With Caution: If your dog likes his crate, and uses it willingly when not anxious, consider its use during thunderstorms as an alternative to the “safe haven” area mentioned above. It can be helpful to move the crate to an area away from windows or doors. Covering the crate with a towel or blanket to decrease outside stimulus can help as well. While many pets will willingly seek out a confined area, it is not advisable to close or lock your pet in the crate during a storm as this could create more anxiety. As with most behavior treatments, every dog is an individual and will respond to crates differently, so keep that in mind.

7. Try Soundproofing Products: There are commercially available sound-reducing products specifically intended for
noise sensitivities and thunderstorms.

  • Thunder Hut
  • Quiet Kennel
  • Mutt Muffs

Pets should be comfortable with any apparel or any product prior to use during a thunderstorm. Never introduce a product for the first time during a time of heightened stress or anxiety.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques (described above) are recommended to introduce new products or apparel for the best result.

8. Try Anxiety Wraps: Pressure wraps use gentle, constant pressure to calm dogs and cats with anxiety, fear, and overexcitement. Experts believe that pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system. The concept is the equivalent of swaddling a fussy baby and has been in use for centuries. Wraps can be utilized on a regular basis or worn in situations when anxiety or stress is anticipated.

  • ThunderShirt
  • Kong Anxiety Wrap
  • Storm Defender Cape – in addition to stress-reducing pressure, this product also decreases the static charge associated with storms.

9. Try Nutritional Supplements: There are many nutritional supplements out there that boast anxiety reduction. Please use caution and consult your veterinarian when giving anything orally to your pet. Veterinary studied and recommended products include Anxitane ®, Composure™, Royal Canin ® Calm Diet™, Solliquin™, Zylkene ®. Supplements are most effective when given on a daily basis and doses can be increased during times of high stress. The following is a list of commonly seen ingredients in supplements and how they work.

  •  Alpha-casozepine – a protein fragment that comes from milk and is shown to have calming effects after eating a meal.
  • L-tryptophan – an amino acid that creates a sense of well-being (picture how content everyone gets after Thanksgiving turkey.)
  • Nicotinamide – also called Vitamin B3, creates a calming effect with the central nervous system.
  • Phellodendron amurense: fruit and bark extracts from the Amur cork tree reported to reduce stress and stress-related eating.
  • Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense– extracts from the bark of the Magnolia and Amur cork trees respectively known for their neuroprotective and relaxing properties, being used to treat depression and anxiety as well as acting as a slight sedative.

10. Prescription Medications From Your Veterinarian: Not all dogs with thunderstorm phobias need medications, but many do. Many pet owners consider this as a “last resort”. Anything given orally to your pet has the potential to create side effects and all medications should be used with appropriate need and caution. That being said, many dogs will attain significant relief with prescription medications, subsequently improving their quality of life and the quality of life of the people and other pets around them. Medications may be required to avoid injury for pets who try to escape or might hurt themselves due to the severity of their fear.

When deciding whether or not to try a prescription medication, consult with your veterinarian or veterinary behavior professional. Medications are not meant to be the only means of providing relief and should be used in conjunction with all other appropriate recommendations made above. Many of the medications used for thunderstorm anxieties should be given between 60-90 minutes prior to stressful events or storms as the active stress response can reduce the effectiveness of the drug given. It is understood that as we cannot predict the weather, looking ahead and administering medications early (before the pet starts showing signs of anxiety), enhance the likelihood they will provide relief. Some medications may need to be given regularly during storm seasons, rather than on an as-needed basis. It may take some trial and error to determine what medications, combinations, and/or doses will be effective for your pet.

Above all, be patient and understanding. Your pet cannot control their phobias and will need your help to get through this very scary time. Remember, you are not alone. Many pets are afflicted with some degree of anxiety and stress during thunderstorms. Do not hesitate to seek veterinary help if you have questions or concerns about your pet.

Educational materials modified from DVGRR and Rebecca F. McIntosh, DVM

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