Help Your Storm-Phobic Dog, but Avoid This Dangerous Mistake

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet storm phobia

Story at-a-glance -

  • Thunderstorm phobia in pets is a serious health concern
  • There can be a number of triggers for storm-phobic dogs, including thunder, lightning, wind, pouring rain and changes in barometric pressure
  • Signs your dog has storm anxiety include pacing, panting, drooling, trembling and dilated pupils
  • Three important steps in helping a dog with thunderstorm phobia include creating a safe spot, implementing behavioral interventions and providing natural calming remedies
  • Medicating an anxious or fearful pet should be an option of last resort

Storm anxieties or phobias tend to be much more pronounced in dogs than cats, perhaps because kitties tend to find an out-of-the-way spot to hide in, whereas most dogs display a range of fear-based behaviors that are impossible to ignore. In addition, our dogs look to us for help when they’re stressed, unlike our more self-sufficient feline family members.

Technically speaking, a phobia is an irrational and disproportionate response to normal stimuli, in this case, thunderstorms. Science hasn’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.

Your pet’s environment can also contribute to the creation or exacerbation of a fear of thunderstorms. 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 cause or reinforce a phobia.

Signs Your Dog Has Storm Anxiety

It’s important to realize that storm phobia is distinct from other phobias, and while there are often coexisting phobias in one dog, fear of storms actually differs quite a bit from other conditions.

If your dog has separation anxiety, she'll be triggered by activities leading up your departure, and the departure itself. A dog with noise phobia will be triggered by the sound of the specific noise(s) she's bothered by. Storm-phobic dogs can react to any number of storm-related triggers, including:

  • The boom of thunder or the crack of lightening
  • The sound of wind or pouring rain
  • Darkening skies
  • Changes in barometric pressure
  • Smells that precede or accompany a storm

Your storm-phobic dog will know bad weather is coming long before you do. Another peculiarity of thunderstorm phobia is it often escalates. Dogs that have been mild to moderately upset by storms can suddenly experience a significant increase in anxiety.

This jump in anxiety level can often be linked to a particularly severe storm and perhaps a static electric shock the dog is exposed to during the storm. Many storm-phobic dogs seem driven to find areas where electrical grounds can protect them from static charges — such as sinks, bathtubs, shower enclosures, under toilet tanks or next to metal radiators or pipes.

It's a fact that static electricity fields build up during storms and some animals become statically charged. 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, and can include:

Dilated pupils

Drooling

Rapid heartbeat

Panting

Pacing

Trembling

Potty accidents

Destructive behavior

Thunderstorm Phobia 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 3-Step Approach to Help Your Storm-Phobic Dog

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. Providing a grounding mat in this environment can also help.

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 the weather. Ask him 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 Treat&Train.

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 him 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 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).

An Adaptil pheromone diffuser. 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, or other similar remedies depending on your pet’s symptoms. Applied Zoopharmacognosy can also be beneficial.

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.

One thing I almost never recommend is medicating an anxious or fearful dog, and a recent FDA warning about Sileo, a noise aversion drug, is one of the many reasons I try to avoid pharmaceuticals whenever possible, especially for problems that can be successfully treated with natural therapies.

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