Many dogs are very afraid, even phobic, of thunderstorms. If your dog suffers from this fear, by mid-summer you are undoubtedly well-versed in the symptoms and have probably tried many remedies. The purpose of this article is to discuss the common, as well as subtle, symptoms and to provide some ideas for management and treatment of storm phobia.
By definition, a phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific stimulus or situation. In dogs, the most common phobias are thunderstorm and noise phobias. Some dogs with thunderstorm phobia will exhibit minor symptoms such as panting or hiding, which may start long before the owner is aware that a thunderstorm is approaching. Others may begin pacing, shivering and drooling.
The most severely affected dogs can be a danger to themselves, trying to dig through walls and doors, or even going through windows (not necessarily on the first floor). I had one client with a German shepherd that climbed on top of the refrigerator. To make the scenario more complicated, sometimes thunderstorm phobias are worsened by underlying separation anxiety, and separation anxiety can lead to thunderstorm phobia.
To successfully treat any phobia, several things must be considered.
Ideally, we would limit exposure to the stimulus that causes the anxious condition. Of course, this is impossible with storms, so we will move on to management strategies for inappropriate storm responses. Understand that this isnâ€™t something that can be managed with punishment. Even if your dog has destroyed something in his panic, being angry with him will only increase his distress.
The first, and most important, step is to create a safe and secure environment for the dog. Often, a darkened room where they canâ€™t see lightning â€” or, even better, a windowless room where the sound is muted â€” will work well. If your dog has self-selected a preferred hiding place, which many will do, donâ€™t try to remove her. Let her stay there during the storm if possible, as removing her surely will cause more distress, at best, and may cause an aggressive response at worst.
Occasionally, just having access to the safe place, and being undisturbed there as the storm passes, will be sufficient. If the phobia is more advanced, additional strategies are needed.
Playing music that is loud or has a strong beat, or putting on some white noise (such as an exhaust fan), will help muffle the outside noises. You also can try to distract your dog with his favorite toys or playing games, though many dogs will not be feeling especially playful when they are frightened. If your dog is pre-trained to go and settle on a mat, bed or other location, the structure of asking them to do so can calm them down.
Other physical treatments that can work to soothe some dogs include Thundershirts, a head harness and leash, and pheromone therapy such as Adaptil, which is available in collars, diffusers or sprays.
If your dog has severe thunderstorm phobia, especially if she is destructive, medication may be indicated. This is something to discuss with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. There are several anti-anxiety medications or calming herbal treatments that can be helpful. Dosage and when to administer the drug varies according to the particular drug chosen. Sometimes, using the medication intermittently (as needed) will be successful; however, in many cases, it is better to have your dog on the treatment daily throughout thunderstorm season. Your veterinarian can discuss options, including advantages and possible side effects of different medications.
Thunderstorm phobias can be very frustrating to treat; no one likes to see their pets unhappy. Hoping for no storms in Virginia in the summer will only lead to anxiety for the owner. Options are, however, available. If you believe that your dog has this problem, donâ€™t ignore early signs of stress. Your veterinarian can guide you to the best outcome for your pet.
Dr. Geri Carlson is an associate veterinarian at Charlottesville Veterinary Hospital. She received her veterinary degree from Louisiana State University and has enjoyed practicing general veterinary medicine for more than 20 years. She lives in Barboursville with her husband, Chip, and dog, Ruby. In her spare time, she teaches tap and jazz at Brushwoodâ€™s School of Dance and is also often seen on stage or behind the scenes at Four County Players.
For Petsâ€™ Sake
For Petsâ€™ Sake is written by the members of the Jefferson Area Veterinary Medical Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the health and wellbeing of all area pets. Visit javma.net for more pet health information, or to find the perfect veterinarian for your pet.