What to Do Before Your Pet Hits This Seasonal Panic Button

dog thunderstorm phobia

Story at-a-glance -

  • Warm weather is on the way, along with the attendant thunderstorms, so it’s time to prepare if your dog suffers from thunderstorm phobia
  • Thunderstorm phobia causes extreme anxiety and discomfort for dogs, and is also a serious stress-related health concern
  • Step 1: Create a safe spot for your dog to use during thunderstorms
  • Step 2: Implement behavioral interventions such as distraction, desensitization and counterconditioning
  • Step 3: Talk to your holistic vet about natural calming therapies

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Warmer weather is on the way, and depending on where you live, the spring and summer months bring thunderstorms. If your dog has a storm-related phobia, now is the time to prepare to help her better tolerate the wind, rain, lightning and claps of thunder.

What Thunderstorm Phobia Is and What It Looks Like

If your furry family has a storm phobia, she experiences an irrational and disproportionate response to normal stimuli, in this case, thunderstorms. We haven’t yet determined all the causes of phobias in dogs, but we do know nature (genetics) plays a role since, for example, herding breeds are predisposed to thunderstorm phobias.

Nurture — your dog’s environment — also contributes to phobia creation. Negative experiences are the triggers. Your dog may have direct personal experience with a stimulus, or exposure to others (pets or people) who are fearful of the stimulus. Either or both of these circumstances can create or reinforce a phobia in your pet.

In the case of thunderstorm phobias, it’s important to realize that it's not just the loud clap of thunder that causes a fear response in dogs. Lightning, wind, rain, dark skies, changes in barometric pressure and even odors can trigger a panicked reaction in vulnerable dogs. Since our canine companions are naturally demonstrative and tend to look to their humans for help, a dog's storm phobia symptoms are usually quite obvious. Common signs of phobia-related stress include:

Dilated pupils

Drooling

Rapid heartbeat

Panting

Pacing

Trembling

Potty accidents

Destructive behavior

Fear of storms in dogs is a serious health concern. Studies show that in phobic dogs, plasma cortisol levels can jump over 200 percent from exposure to an audio recording of a storm. And even though we can't scientifically measure the emotions of sensitive pets during a thunderstorm, we can safely assume they feel fear and perhaps even terror.

Storm phobia causes extreme anxiety and discomfort not only for four-legged companions, but also for human family members who feel helpless to ease their pet's suffering. If your dog is afraid of storms, don't lose hope. There are things you can do to help your furry friend remain calm when the weather outside is anything but.

A Multimodal Approach to Help Storm-Phobic Dogs

1. Create a safe spot. This is a place in your home your dog can retreat to at the first sign of a storm (whether you're home or not). This spot should be located in an interior room with few or no windows, so she'll be shielded from hearing and seeing the worst of the storm.

You may want to place a crate in the safe room, along with bedding, water, treats, and a toy or two. Leave the lights on and consider playing calming music or leaving a TV on to muffle the sounds of the storm. It's a good idea to spend time in the safe room with your dog when it’s not storming outside. Play with her so she'll think of the spot as a happy place. For some dogs, having access to a safe spot at all times will be enough to help them weather the storm.

2. Consider behavioral interventions. Some dogs will require the help of a positive trainer or behaviorist to overcome a thunderstorm phobia, especially if the situation is becoming progressively worse. However, you may be able to try some things on your own as well.

One option is distraction using a reward. A training session when the skies turn dark may be a perfect way to take your dog's mind off of the weather. Ask your dog to perform commands or tricks he knows and reward him for following your commands. Even a series of basic tasks, such as sits and downs, can be enough to take his mind off the weather outside.

You can also try distraction using a fun game, treat-release toy or recreational bone to chew on. Nose work can also be effective. Use your dog's natural senses to divert his attention or have fun with Dr. Sophia Yin's Manners Minder.

Unfortunately, if your dog's thunderstorm phobia is intense, you may not be able to consistently soothe him with food rewards or other distractions. In this case, you may want to try desensitization, which involves exposing your dog to the stimuli in order to sort of “immunize” him to the sounds of thunderstorms.

You can use a CD with recorded storm sounds during times of the year when real storms are unlikely. Desensitization should be done in each room of the house, because a new coping skill learned in the living room will probably be forgotten in the kitchen. But keep in mind there are several aspects of storms (e.g., lightning, changes in barometric pressure, static electricity) that don’t lend themselves to desensitiza­tion.

Counterconditioning is another option. It involves consistently and repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one until your dog makes a positive association. For example, each time your dog hears a thunderclap, offer him a treat. The goal is to condition him to associate a treat with the sound of thunder.

3. Use natural anti-anxiety, calming remedies. If you're in the midst of a thunderstorm watch or warning and you know your dog is going to panic, there are several options that may help her to calm down:

Ttouch is a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets. You can also consider trying Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) to help your four-legged companion.

An anxiety wrap made from an ace bandage (or a commercially available coat for stress).

Provide an Adaptil pheromone diffuser for your dog. Pheromones are chemical substances that can positively affect an animal's emotional state and behavior. CBD oil may also help.

Consult a holistic veterinarian about homeopathic, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Bach Flower Remedies that may be beneficial in alleviating your dog's fear.

Products I use (always in conjunction with behavioral interventions) include Calm Shen, homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Rescue Remedy, Storm Soother or other similar remedies depending on the pet’s symptoms.

Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that I've found helpful include holy basil (Tulsi), valerian, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP and chamomile. Consult your holistic vet about which option is right for your pet.

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