Storm Phobia
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2004
Moisés Heiblum
Veterinary Hospital Universidad Nacional Autfinoma de México, University of Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico

Fear--In humans is described as an emotional state experienced as a feeling of apprehension.

In animals, the subjective state of fear is presumed to exist when they exhibit specific behaviors like avoidance, withdrawal, crying and signals that are typically associated with defensive arousal "fear".

Fear is part of a normal behavior and can be adaptive. We have to determine if fear is abnormal, inappropriate or maladaptive by the context in which it occurs.

Phobia--is the term used to refer to fear responses that are persistent over time, consistent in terms of what causes the fear. Phobias are learned, irrational and not adaptive.

May be, but not necessarily intense producing signs of hysteria, catatonia and panic.

Anxiety--Term used to refer to apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by feelings of dysphoria and/or somatic symptoms of tension (Overall).

To identify fear, subjectively is easy objectively is more difficult.

Panting could be heat or fear as well as whining could be arousal or anxiety, in general terms look for a combination of signals.

There are many signals of fear in dogs such as: Ears back, crouch, tail lowered, licking lips, panting, whining, profuse salivation, pacing, destructiveness, urination/defecation and self-mutilation.

Specific signals of fear of storms: normal dogs will exhibit alerting responses and may show mild anxiety if there is a severe storm immediately around the house, when lighting strikes near the house, strong thunder over head and strong winds.

Thunder phobia development--traumatic storm experience like lighting striking tree next to dog house, Hurricane/tornado or cumulative storms experiences (areas with bad storms).

You can call a dog thunder phobic when symptoms are disproportionately intense relative to the stimuli and or when symptoms occur in response to innocuous stimuli, e.g., Sprinkling rain.

There are different kinds of response variation:

 Type 1 (mild)--Attempts to hide, remain near owner, some pacing, some whining.

 Type 2 (moderate)--Attempts to hide, remain near owner, significant pacing, significant whining, significant panting, trembling, vocalizing, hypersalivation and sometimes occasional elimination

 Type 3 (severe)--Strong attempts to hide, strong attempts to remain near owner, strong attempts to escape, substantial pacing, trembling, salivation, vocalization and /or elimination, symptoms are sufficiently intense that the dog is at risk to damage its environment or injure itself or someone else.

Treatment plan for thunderstorm phobia

 Environmental management--Try to minimize exposure to the fear inducing stimuli during initial phases of treatment, let the dog hide in the bathroom, closet or other place, avoid taking on walks in areas and during weather in which tree branches will be waving around, keep away from fireworks displays (keep doors closed or everything you can do to mute fear noises), avoid reinforcing the behavior by trying to calm the dog with soft talking or petting

 Behavior modification--Determine what stimuli is the dog responding to sound, sight, smell, other (barometric pressure, ionization, temperature), we can use a combination of different stimuli

Classical conditioning

 Lightning hitting tree beside dog house (US) produces Fear (UR)

 Dog looking at rain (NS) just before lightning strikes

 Rain becomes a CS for fear (CR)

Artificial stimuli that can be controlled

 Auditory--Thunderstorms CDs, record local storms, Fireworks CDs, record local fireworks.

 Visual--camera flash, strobe light, light switch, darkness, waving branches

 Combination--Visual-Auditory, e.g.; video recorded storms.

Other stimuli that cannot be controlled: Barometric pressure, ionization and temperature.

We need to have compliance of the owner in order to treat any behavior problem, if owner has thunder phobia, it may be desirable for them to undergo treatment with a psychiatrist.

Caution owner not to console the dog during a storm. This can serve as positive reinforcement for behaviors like climbing in lap, whining, etc.

Dogs can learn to engage in attention/care-soliciting behaviors independent of their actual emotional state, so caution owners not to punish the dog, e.g., when it digs, whines, etc., punishment will just intensify the dog's state of anxiety.

DC&CC--Test to confirm that the animal shows fear with the artificial stimulus (in the clinic the response is not going to be as intense as the owners describe at home). We can see yawning, licking lips, pacing, etc, begin at minimum intensity, gradient could be volume or distance, so long as the dog remains calm, use the selected counter conditioner (treats, play, petting), if the dog shows anxiety upon increasing the stimulus intensity, wait 1-2 minutes, if the dog calms resume CC, if the dog does not calm, lower intensity (lower volume-increase distance).

Try to avoid the above scenario occurring repeatedly.

 15-20 minute session daily

 Multiple shorts sessions To proceed quickly

 Do not have a session if dog or person is having a bad day

 Given that we can not tell what is the best rate at which the dog can progress, it is better to go slow than too fast

 Do not do the DS&CC sessions at an intensity at which the dog shows anxiety or fear


 Continuous anxiolytic effects

 TCA's, SSRI's, Buspirone

 Fast acting for acute fears

 Benzodiazepines (prior to the animal exhibiting fear)

 Drug combination therapy (when symptoms are severe)


 Some degree of fear of storms is a natural, adaptive phenomenon.

 Improvement can be obtained. However, total resolution is probably not attainable, particularly in the face of severe storms.


1.  Landsberg, G: M., Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (2003). Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat

2.  Overall, K. A: (1997) Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals.

3.  St Louis Mosby

4.  Continuing education courses Update on diagnosis and treatment of small animal behavior problems. University of Georgia 2001

Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Mois├ęs Heiblum, Professor of Behavioral Medicine
University of Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico

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