Thunderstorm phobia or anxiety in dogs is a fairly common and very real problem for many dogs. Dogs with thunderstorm phobia may become extremely frantic and overwhelmed with fear during storms. Astraphobia is the technical term for this: the fear of thunder and lightning. Owners who see their dogs experiencing this fear usually feel helpless and frustrated. Find out what causes thunderstorm phobia in dogs and learn how to manage it for the sake of your dog and your own peace of mind.
Causes of Thunderstorm Phobia
There is no way to know for certain what causes a dog to become afraid of thunderstorms. However, based on what we do know about dogs, we can speculate. There are probably multiple reasons for thunderstorm phobia, and the reasons vary from dog to dog. The most obvious reason is due to the loud noise of the thunder. Many dogs suffer from noise phobia, and the thunder is just one of several frightening noises (others include fireworks, gunshots, etc). However, the cause of fear may not be limited to noise. Changes in barometric pressure and humidity can affect your dog's senses and possibly even cause discomfort in the ears. Arthritic dogs or those with orthopedic disorders may experience more pain than usual. Another possible reason for thunderstorm phobia is association with a traumatic experience. You may not know what happened, but it is possible that something very stressful or frightening occurred in your dog's past during a thunderstorm. Finally, genetic make-up may be a contributing factor to fear of thunderstorms, or even the sole cause.
Thunderstorm Phobia Signs
If your dog seems anxious, hyperactive, destructive or reclusive during storms, you are probably dealing with thunderstorm phobia. The signs are usually quite obvious, so you probably already know your dog is phobic of storms. Many dogs will pace, pant, or quietly whine. Some are clingy and seek attention. Other dogs will hide, frozen with fear. Your dog's fearful behavior may be subtle at first but can become worse with time, eventually becoming full-blown panic attacks that are very dangerous for your dog. It is not uncommon for dogs with thunderstorm phobia to urinate and/or defecate inappropriately. Telltale signs of anxiety and fear can begin long before the storm arrives, so take note of signs that occur during normal weather. Your dog is probably the best weather forecaster you can find.
Preventing and Treating Thunderstorm Phobia
There are some things you can do to prevent your dog from reacting adversely to the triggers of thunderstorms or at least minimize the reaction. First of all, never leave your dog outside during storms. Next, examine your own behavior and that of other people in the home. Your dog will react to human anxiety, fear and stress—even if it is not related to the storm. Do your best to remain relaxed and upbeat. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to go about your usual routine. Comforting your pet is totally okay, and does not encourage bad behavior.
There are ways you can comfort your dog during thunderstorms (or other sources of fear and anxiety). One thing you can try is to provide a comfortable hiding place in the quietest part of your home. A crate with a soft bed inside and covered with a heavy blanket might make your dog feel safer. Try playing music or white noise to drown out the noise. Consider trying a CD like Through a Dog's Ear. In addition, using Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) in the "safe place" might also help. Some dogs benefit from a type of wrap, like the Thundershirt that is believed to provide some comfort during times of anxiety, stress, and fear because it releases endorphins.
If your dog does calm down and stops reacting to the storm, respond with calm praise and rewards. Consider distracting your dog from the remainder of the storm by practicing basic commands or playing a game of tug-of-war.
Dogs with severe thunderstorm phobia will need the help of a professional. A veterinary behaviorist can help you establish a desensitization or conditioning program. Talk to your primary veterinarian about potential treatments, including herbal therapies such as Rescue Remedy. In most cases, prescription medication is very successful in conjunction with desensitization or conditioning. Though many dog owners shy away from these types of medications, the benefit outweighs the means. Your vet may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication like Trazodone or Sileo that can be given at the first sign of a storm. Some dogs will need to be on longer-term medications that are given daily to keep anxiety under control.
Because thunderstorm phobia is likely to become worse over time, it is important to take action when you first notice the signs. Do not wait to address the phobia until it is very severe—it will be that much harder to reverse. Just as stress is a health risk for humans, the same applies for dogs. Thunderstorm phobia can become a very serious problem that will adversely affect your dog's health and quality of life. Act now for the sake of your dog.