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Thunderstorm phobia is relatively common in dogs. The technical term is astraphobia.
If you’ve ever had a thunderstorm-phobic dog, you know how distressing it can be–to both the dog and to the pet parent. It’s very difficult to see your dog’s anxiety and panic.
In this blog post, I’ll discuss what causes thunderstorm phobia in dogs and how you can help your dog.
Causes of Thunderstorm Phobia
There are many possible causes for thunderstorm phobia. And each dog may have one or more reasons why he’s thunderstorm phobic.
You may not know all of the reasons that your dog is distressed. But knowing the possible reasons discussed below should give some insight into why he has the issue.
And that knowledge will help you know how to manage the issue to improve his quality of life–and yours. Possible causes:
- Noise phobias. Dogs who have other noise phobias are more susceptible to thunderstorm phobia than those without.
- Genetics. A dog’s relatives may also have had thunderstorm phobia. Certain breeds, such as herding breeds, are more predisposed to reactivity to noises.
- Lack of exposure to storms early in development. This can also occur if early exposure was too much for the pup.
- Changes in barometric pressure and humidity. These can affect a dog’s senses and even cause discomfort in his ears.
- Traumatic experiences. A dog who has experienced a traumatic incident during a thunderstorm may be more susceptible to thunderstorm phobia than one who didn’t. The negative experience may be something related to the storm such as a tree falling, power going out, or flooding. Or the negative experience may be unrelated to the storm but may have occurred during it.
- Arthritis and orthopedic problems. These dogs can be more sensitive to fluctuations in the weather.
- Unintentional reinforcement. Pet parents may have unintentionally reinforced a dog’s fears by acting anxious themselves.
- Flooding. This means deliberating exposing an anxious dog to a frightening stimulus at a maximum intensity until the dog stops appearing to be anxious. This can cause a fight, flight, or freeze response.
- Decreased tolerance to certain things as a dog ages. The experiences of noises, lightning flashes, and weather-related changes may become intolerable as a dog ages.
- Fear of new experiences. Thunderstorms have rain, excessive noise, and flashes of light. Any or all of these can be frightening to a dog who hasn’t previously been properly socialized to them.
How Is Thunderstorm Phobia Diagnosed?
In order to determine whether a dog’s stress behaviors are caused by thunderstorm phobia, you must first rule out other possible causes. It really is a process of elimination.
So have a vet visit to rule out physical causes such as pain or neurological issues. You also need to rule out other behavioral causes such as separation anxiety.
What Are the Signs of Thunderstorm Phobia?
Dogs often react to thunderstorms long before we’re aware of them.
They may start to exhibit some signs of stress that we need to be conscious of. So watch for any unexplained changes in behavior.
A dog may become clingy or exhibit signs of anxiety. Our dogs can actually become our weather forecasters.
A dog who experiences thunderstorm phobia may become extremely anxious, appearing to have a full-blown panic attack. Signs of anxiety include:
- Whining or other excessive vocalization
- Being frozen in place with fear (shutting down)
- Attempting to escape
- Inappropriate urination or defecation
- Self-inflicted trauma such as that caused by excessive chewing or licking himself or injuries by trying to escape
Dogs with thunderstorm phobia demonstrate many physiological changes.
These include: cardiovascular changes (increased heart rate); metabolic/ neurological changes (increased cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone); stress-induced hyperglycemia (which is high blood sugar); gastrointestinal changes (inappetence or gastrointestinal problems); musculoskeletal problems (caused by trauma attempting to escape); respiratory issues (rapid breathing); or skin acral dermatitis (caused by stress licking).
How To Prevent and Treat Thunderstorm Phobia
There are measures that you can take to help manage your dog’s thunderstorm phobia.
Depending on the dog, management and treatment methods may lessen your dog’s anxiety to the point that his thunderstorm phobia isn’t apparent and doesn’t noticeably affect him.
In a 2003 study, 30 out of 32 dogs showed a significant improvement in symptoms when the appropriate therapies were given.
Be aware of the weather forecast in your area. By doing so, you can take some of the below management techniques to help prevent your dog from responding excessively to the coming storm.
Don’t leave your dog outside if a storm is predicted.
Your dog can read if you’re anxious by your body language. So remain calm.
Go about your normal routine. Dogs are creatures of habit and thrive on a normal schedule.
Dogs often feel safe during thunderstorms when they have access to certain areas. A room with no windows can help some dogs cope.
My shih tzu Cuddles had thunderstorm phobia. She instinctively went into a hall bathroom which was windowless when a thunderstorm approached and until it ended.
By doing so, she minimized her stress. To also help her, I placed a comfortable bed and some of her toys with her scent there.
So give your dog access to such a safe area. Place a familiar bed and toys there to help comfort your pup.
Close windows, shades, and blinds.
Use Holistic Aids
There are many holistic aids to choose from that may help your dog.
There’s a product called Adaptil that mimics the pheromones of a puppy’s mother. This can help lessen some dogs’ stress during a thunderstorm.
And the product also can be purchased in the form of a collar that the dog can wear.
I note that we can’t smell the Adaptil scent, so there isn’t a flowery odor released into your rooms.
A product called the Calming Cap can help some canines cope with the visual stimulation of the lightning that accompanies a storm.
The ThunderShirt, which can be used in other stress-producing experiences, can help lessen a dog’s anxiety if used correctly.
It fits snugly (not tight) and provides a “hug” (applying acupressure), which releases endorphins (these are hormones that are released to relieve stress and improve mood).
If you decide to try the ThunderShirt, you need to put it on for a short time when there is no storm, such as a half-hour, and play with the dog. Give him treats.
You want the dog to have a positive association with wearing it. Do this daily for a few weeks to help your dog love wearing it.
You shouldn’t just initially put it on him during a thunderstorm or he will have a negative association with wearing it.
I have recommended the ThunderShirt to many of my clients whose dogs had thunderstorm and other phobias. I’ve seen a spectrum of results.
One client’s dog miraculously seemed relaxed (and even playful) in a situation that was formerly stressful.
I’ve seen some times where no noticeable change occurred.
But in most cases, there’s been some measure of improvement in a dog’s response to stress in my experience.
A similar product called the Anxiety Wrap was reportedly 89 percent effective to at least partially treat their dogs’ thunderstorm phobia.
There are also other similar options.
A product called the Storm Defender Cape, which the dog wears, has anti-static properties and owners reported some improvement after the fourth use of it.
Actions You Should Take
But note that a severely stressed dog may not want to play or take treats.
Comfort him if he comes to you. Contrary to popular belief, this is not praising him for his fearful behavior.
My rescued golden retriever Brandi was a former puppy mill breeding dog.
She lived outside at least part of the time. And she became frantic when a thunderstorm occurred. Petting and comforting her helped her relax.
It often helps if you–or another known person–is present during the storm. This can help comfort and make some dogs feel more secure.
My rescued golden Spencer was a former backyard breeder dog who lived chained to a shed. So he was exposed to all types of weather–including thunderstorms– and developed thunderstorm phobia.
I successfully worked through and managed the issue and for years he didn’t demonstrate any stress signals during a storm.
Then the storm to end all storms occurred while I was out of the house at work. We lost power and the house shook.
Spencer’s thunderstorm phobia came back and was worse than ever. He went into severe panic mode during a storm.
In addition to management and behavioral work, I needed to be present–or have a friend stay with him–during storms while we again worked through the issue.
So I had to check the weather forecast if I planned to be out of the house while we worked through the issue again.
Counterconditioning and DeSensitization (CC & D)
You can help lessen a dog’s fearful response to the sound of rain and thunder by playing a CD or YouTube video at a low sound in the background. The goal is for the dog to remain calm.
Don’t play the sound at a high volume or as background noise. This technique is called flooding and isn’t behaviorally sound.
You would take the following steps for CC & D:
- Start playing the least scary stimulus at a very low level. So play the sound very softly.
- Over time, increase the sound very gradually. This may take weeks or months. You don’t want to increase it too quickly or the dog will become stressed.
- Try to do a short five-minute session a day.
- If at any time the dog seems stressed, end. During the next session, start back at the lower sound level. Increase the volume over sessions as the dog is able to handle it.
I note that, although CC & D may work for thunderstorm phobias, it may not.
This is because there are many other stimuli that may stress a dog during the storm. These include the changes in barometric pressure and humidity.
In classical conditioning, you try to change the dog’s feelings to the stimulus, which in this case are the various components of a thunderstorm.
The stimulus can be the light flashes or the sound of the rain, thunder, or wind.
You pair something that the dog enjoys, such as favorite treats or toys, with the stimulus.
So you would give him treats during the scary event. This would make a positive association with the thunder or whatever the dog is reactive towards.
The dog should then feel, for example, that thunder means cheese or chicken will appear.
Get Professional Help
If the above treatments don’t work or aren’t sufficient, you should check with a vet or veterinary behaviorist with experience with thunderstorm phobia to determine whether any behavioral medicines are appropriate.
Some of these are short-acting drugs that are given only around the time that a thunderstorm occurs.
Others are anti-anxiety medicines that are appropriate when a dog is stressed in many other situations too.
You can also ask whether the drug Sileo is appropriate for your pup. This is the first and only FDA-approved treatment in dogs for noise aversion.
A veterinary behaviorist can also set up a treatment program that includes behavioral work.
What NOT To Do: Don’t Try This at Home
As frustrating as dealing with thunderstorm phobia is, it’s crucial that you don’t escalate your dog’s stress.
So don’t correct your dog’s behavior. Doing so will just increase his anxiety and make things worse.
My dog goes into a sheer panic, running around the room when a storm occurs. No treats or toys will help him settle down. In fact, he won’t even eat treats then. What can I do?
When dogs are extremely stressed, they often won’t take treats. It sounds like you should consult a veterinary behaviorist who can set up an appropriate management program. And, if necessary, the vet can also prescribe any appropriate medications.
Will my leaving the house help my dog not panic during thunderstorms?
Probably not. Most dogs do better if their pet parents are home. But make sure that you appear to be calm, not stressed, or your dog will feed off your anxiety.
I’ve heard that I should play the sounds of a thunderstorm to help my dog who has thunderstorm phobia. Should I leave that playing during the day?
No. Doing so can create more stress. If you are going to use the sounds of a thunderstorm to help desensitize and counter-condition your dog’s reaction to it, you need to do it appropriately. This involves slowly increasing the volume for short periods. And note that this doesn’t always work even when performed correctly because the sound alone can’t produce the change in barometric pressure and humidity that a storm can.
There are many reasons why a dog may develop thunderstorm phobia.
In order to determine whether that is the cause of his anxiety, you must first rule out other potential causes of his stress.
Then, if he truly has thunderstorm phobia there are many ways that you can appropriately manage his anxiety.
Successful management will lead to a better quality of life for both you and your canine companion.
Have you had a dog with thunderstorm phobia? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
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