By Dr. Karen Burgess
Crash, Bang, Boom! Thunderstorm Season is Here!! With spring and summer sunshine come thunderstorms. These downpours not only affect our lives, but are also devastating for pets that have noise phobias. Dogs that have anxiety during storms may also have problems with other loud noises such as fireworks, gunshots, or loud vehicles (ex. trash trucks). This is not just a dog being silly but a major behavioral issue when a pet becomes destructive or harms themselves or others. So let’s look at the basics for thunderstorm phobia…
Who: Dogs of any sex, age, or breed (including mixed breeds). A dog may develop this phobia as an adult and it will often get worse rather than better on its own.
What/When/Where: Clinical signs may be as mild as pacing, difficulty settling down, or panting. Some dogs destroy rooms, soil in the house, or even jump through windows. It has been suggested that dogs actually detect the barometric and electrical changes in the air prior to the actual storm. This may explain why some dogs display symptoms several hours prior to an actual storm or thunder.
Why: It is unknown what causes noise phobia. There is a link between thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety. Dogs with storm phobia are more likely to also experience separation anxiety (although vice versa is not true).
How do we help these dogs?
- Safe place-whether this be a crate, under the bed, or a specific room, it is important that the dog has free access to this area. Watch to see where the dog tries to go when they are frightened. Other considerations are a room in the interior of the home with no windows, covering the crate with a blanket, or playing a fan or music in the room to help block out storm noise
- Owner behavior-it is very important that owners not unintentionally reinforce a dog’s fear of storms. Petting, soothing, or giving treats to a pet that is acting fearful may be interpreted as a reward for the behavior. The best thing for an owner to do is to go about business as usual and not acknowledge their pet’s anxious behavior at all
- Distraction -try preoccupying the pet with an activity they enjoy, playing fetch, Kong toy, or a favorite toy. If the dog is trained on a regular basis you can also practice sit, stay, down, and come with appropriate rewards to try and get their mind off of their anxiety
- Behavior modification-for some dogs playing audio tapes of thunder at gradually increasing volumes can help desensitize them to the noise when a real storm comes.
- Medication-the dog appeasing pheremone or DAP diffuser is a relatively new product that owners can obtain over the counter. It is plugged into an outlet and secretes a scent that is soothing to dogs. This has not been shown to be 100% effective, but many people claim success and it is in no way harmful to the pet. Many people want sedatives for their dogs during storms. These must be used with caution since they may make the dog sleepy but not take away their anxiety in the least bit. Clomicalm (clomipramine) and Xanax (alprazolam) have been shown statistically to help with thunderstorm anxiety.