By Dr. Plankenhorn
It’s a hot, steamy day. The clouds build, and you hear rumbles of thunder in the distance. For most of us and our pets, there’snothing to fear. But for animals with storm phobia, it’s time to panic. A “phobia” is a persistent, irrational fear of a stimulus, and can manifest in many ways, from anxiety and trembling all the way to destructive behaviors. At the onset of a storm, some dogs hide or seek out their owner. Others tremble, salivate, or pant. In the more extreme cases, dogs can cause damage in their attempt to be “anywhere but here,” digging up carpets and walls, breaking windows, or even breaking nails and teeth trying to escape.
There are many factors in thunderstorms that can trigger the anxiety response. The sound of thunder is the most obvious, but it is thought that dogs can also sense changes in atmospheric pressure or buildup of static electricity. These factors make it more difficult to desensitize dogs to storms, but it still can be done.
Dogs with mild thunderstorm anxiety often respond well to being indoors; noise distraction such as radio or television can help also. Others do well with having a “safe place” available, which can be a closet, their crate, or another quiet small place. The bathroom may be a good spot, although one of our patients turned on the tub water in his anxiety during a morning thunderstorm, which led to thousands of dollars worth of water damage by the time his owner got home from work. Another technique is to have a “storm party,” pairing especially yummy treats or a favorite toy with the storm. Give the treats almost continuously as needed to distract the dog from the storm, which teaches the dog that storms can be associated with good things instead of fear.
During the off-season, dogs that experience most of their anxiety associated with the sound of storms can be desensitized using CD of rain and thunder. Starting with the least threatening sound (usually rain), reward the dog with a yummy treat if he is calm and relaxed while the CD is playing softly in the background. Gradually increase the volume and intensity of the sound during each session, and reward the dog if he remains relaxed. If he becomes anxious, reduce the volume to a level that doesn’t cause anxiety. These sessions should last no more than 5-10 minutes, and should be done daily if possible. Do not leave the CD on all the time, as this will likely worsen the anxiety.
Other non-drug therapies that can be used include DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone), which may reduce anxiety to some extent. It is available in a diffuser, spray, and collar. Anxiety wraps and storm capes can also be useful. Storm capes are designed to reduce static electricity buildup in the fur during the storm, and anxiety wraps claim to help the dog feel more safe and nurtured. These therapies do not take the place of behavior modification, but may be a helpful addition.
For many dogs with storm phobia, medication is the best way to manage the anxiety. For milder cases, medication given before the onset of the storm is adequate. Some dogs do best with a maintenance drug every day during the thunderstorm season, allowing them to have lower overall anxiety and reactivity to storms.
Contact the Animal Hospital of North Asheville if you think your pet needs help with thunderstorm anxiety. We’re here to help keep your pet healthy and happy!