It can be heartbreaking to watch: Even before the first clap of thunder, otherwise well-behaved dogs begin to pace, pant, piddle, cling to their owners, hide in the closet, or cower in the bathtub. In severe cases, they’ll claw through drywall, chew carpets, or break through windows in their escalating panic.
Thunderstorm phobia in dogs is real, not uncommon, and shouldn’t be ignored.
Why does storm phobia happen, and what can you do if your dog suffers from it?
Veterinarians don’t know all the triggers but suspect the dogs are set off by some combination of wind, thunder, lightning, barometric pressure changes, static electricity, and low-frequency rumbles preceding a storm that humans can’t hear. The anxiety often gets worse throughout the season as storms become more frequent.
Herding breeds, such as border collies, may be predisposed to the problem. Dogs with other fearful behaviors, such as separation anxiety, also seem more prone to panic. Some dogs with storm phobia are also frightened of other loud noises, such as fireworks or gunshots, but others are only afraid of storms. What to do? There’s no easy fix, and unless your dog is only mildly affected, it can be difficult to treat, vets say. But there are lots of tools to reduce your dog’s distress during storm season:
1. Reward calm behavior year-round.
Many owners may try to console and pet a fearful dog that’s whimpering or climbing on them, but that just encourages the panicky behavior.
Instead, practice getting your dog to settle on command. Use a special “inside” leash on the dog and practice having the pet lie at their feet while praising the calm behavior. Practice the settle command when there is no storm, so the dog learns the routine. When the storm comes up, put the leash on and say, ‘Come on and lie down here,’ and the dog still knows what to do.
As long as your pet remains calm during the storm, you can also try distracting the dog by offering its favorite toy, playing fetch, petting it, and feeding treats. Try to get the pet to forget about the storm with positive reinforcements.
2. Give the dog a safe place where he can go in a storm.
That might be an open crate, a basement where the dog can’t hear or see what’s happening outside, an interior room with music playing, or a bathroom. Let your dog decide: Notice where he goes during a storm, and if possible, allow access to it. Be sure your dog can come and go freely, since some animals become more anxious if confined.
3. Consider a snug garment.
Snug-fitting shirts and wraps especially designed to calm anxious dogs are worth a try. Thundershirts are compression garments, similar to swaddling a baby, that is said to have a calming effects. Some dogs also respond to wearing a metal fabric-lined cape marketed as the Storm Defender, which claims to protect dogs from static shocks.
4. In the winter, desensitize your dog to the sounds of a storm.
Play a CD of thunder recordings at low enough levels that don’t frighten your dog, while giving him treats or playing a game. Gradually increase the volume over the course of several months, stopping if your dog shows any signs of anxiety. The goal is to get your dog used to the sound of thunder, and associate it with good things. Experts caution that desensitization can have limited success in an actual storm because you can only recreate the noise, and not the other factors that may be bothering the dog, such as the static electricity or changes in barometric pressure.
5. Use of Medications.
It’s easier to prevent a fearful reaction than it is to reverse one. If your pet is nervous around loud, unexpected noises, a short-term sedative before the thunderstorm starts may be beneficial. Talk to us ahead of time, so you can have something on hand to give your pet before the thunderstorm starts.