Thunderstorms may be exciting to watch, but for dogs who are thunder phobic, even a storm far off on the radar can ruin their entire afternoon.
Sometimes, but not always, storm phobias and other noise phobias go hand in hand (or paw in paw, as it were), which means Fourth of July and other raucous holidays that involve fireworks can also elicit a strong reaction from your pup. This makes summer a particularly bittersweet time for some dogs.
Thunder or noise phobias are not uncommon—I’m reminded of a Fourth of July party we had during vet school one year. Many of us brought our dogs to frolic together at parties, and this one was no exception. Well, imagine my surprise when I went to the bathroom and found FIVE big dogs huddled in the bathtub together, keeping each other safe from the fireworks! It was a scene I’ll never forget.
There are many reasons for your dog (or cat, for that matter) to be afraid of thunderstorms. First, it’s loud. It can be so loud that it shakes the house. And for a pet who has no concept of weather, it’s completely out of the blue.
Secondly, they hear it even when it’s quiet. Dogs can hear thunder from far off in the distance, so they know a storm is coming even before we do. What’s more, they can probably detect changes in barometric pressure that accompany a pending storm, and that’s enough to get them in a tizzy.
Finally, in addition to the sound and light show, pain associated with accrued static electricity in their fur could contribute to the anxiety pets experience during storms.
Dogs who are storm phobic will tremble, pant and drool, pacing around the room like a nervous wreck before or during a storm. They may seek out a safe place (like the tub or your lap) or they may try to escape the house or yard. Some phobias are so severe that affected dogs can become destructive.
If you have a pet who exhibits a storm phobia, there are many things you can try to help them through a storm.
- During high storm season, check the weather forecast each day so you know when a storm is on the way. Being prepared in advance will help when you’re at work and your dog has to be home alone. If a storm is coming, consider taking your pet to work if you can, or make sure he has a safe place to retreat at home.
- Play music or white noise to drown out the loud thunder. Similarly, close the blinds so lightning doesn’t spark fear, too.
- The mainstay of behavior modification for any behavioral issue is desensitization and counter conditioning. Playing a CD of thunder sounds and associating the sounds with pleasant outcomes can allow your dog to cope with storms and can prevent phobias from progressing. Talk to your veterinarian about exercises you can do at home with your storm phobic dog to make storms feel less scary.
- Try a ThunderShirt™ or anti-static cape. You can also try dressing your dog in a tight, form-fitting tee shirt.
- Let your dog choose his safe space during a storm. Never punish him for feeling nervous during a storm. If gentle strokes and praise calm your dog, indulge him with a little extra TLC. If this extra attention just seems to feed his fears, it’s best to try to ignore his behavior as long as he is safe.
If your dog is severely storm phobic, he may need prescription medication along with behavior modification exercises. As-needed medications, like Valium, can be given before a storm to keep your pet calm, but some dogs will need to be on a daily medication like Prozac to make it through storm season unscathed.
If thunder and lightning turn your dog into a scaredy cat, talk to your veterinarian. Because phobias can worsen with each storm or Fourth of July, nipping these fears in the bud early is key to enjoying the summer sun (and rain).