Photo Courtesy Dr. Teri Ann Oursler
Reactions to thunderstorms are not uncommon: loud noises from overhead are difficult to orient to. While many dogs get accustomed to storms (habituation), others may become more sensitive, resulting in additional fear with each exposure. Even a single frightening event during a storm may contribute to fear of thunderstorms. The degree of anxiety is based on a dog’s perception of a threat. When a dog’s response to thunderstorms is extreme, it is considered a phobia.
Diagnosis and Clinical Signs
Dogs may show a variety of anxiety signs during or before a thunderstorm: panting, trembling, hiding, pacing, vocalizing, and being destructive. Diagnosis is clear when the signs occur consistently during a storm. However, some dogs are more anxious during thunderstorms when they are alone, and thunderstorm and noise fears are common in dogs with separation anxiety.
Dogs may try to hide to avoid a thunderstorm; this is a normal response. If your dog seems agitated or restless, you may be able to assist him in securing a safe haven and help him relax during storms. This safe location should be readily available, especially when no one is home. You can try to limit exposure to the overwhelming and fear-evoking elements of a storm by closing doors and windows, and using white noise or music to block out the sounds. You can also redirect the dog to alternative and anxiety-incompatible behaviors such as obedience exercises, fun activities (agility or food puzzle toys) or relaxation responses. Each dog and family may need to implement different strategies based on their dog’s unique response. If your dog shows little or no response to storms, you need not do anything.
Pharmacological, Pheromonotherapy and Botanical Interventions
For very anxious animals, it is essential to reduce anxiety during a storm to prevent worsening of the anxiety and allow management and treatment options to be successful. Select interventions based upon the severity of the anxiety and the severity of the storms. Dogs with severe anxiety may benefit from long-term management with anxiolytic medications (such as fluoxetine or clomipramine) plus rapidly-acting anxiolytics (benzodiazepines) that may be given immediately prior to or even during a storm.
Intermediate cases may require only rapidly-acting anxiolytics (such as alprazolam or diazepam) that can also be given immediately prior to or during a storm. Pheromone intervention (D.A.P.® Dog Appeasing Pheromone), which can be used alone or combined with another intervention, can be used with a continuous use collar or diffuser or the spray can be used as an immediate intervention. Nutraceutical or natural products may also be beneficial, especially for dogs with mild anxiety.
Recordings of thunderstorm sounds may be played and you can associate them with pleasant outcomes. Programs such as Sounds Scary® that offer gradual and positive exposure to noises in a non-threatening manner (systematic desensitization and counter conditioning) are useful to treat and prevent progression of noise-related fears. Rehearsing a safe haven routine or redirection strategies while listening to recordings of storm noises will prepare your dog for more imposing threats. Don’t panic or show your own anxiety during storms to avoid making your dog’s anxiety worse. You may reassure him to encourage relaxation or direct him with obedience or trick cues. If your dog’s anxiety is minimal and he startles but recovers quickly, it may be appropriate for you to ignore him and observe his natural ability to adapt to storms (habituation). Ignoring severe anxiety or extreme displays when the dog is not likely to adapt naturally is not necessary, and may be confusing and could contribute to your dog’s anxiety. If his anxiety persists, seems extreme or your pet is at risk for self injury, be sure to consult your veterinarian.