Many people with dog companions are all too familiar with the fear, anxiety, and even true panic that some dogs experience in response to specific weather conditions. Dilated pupils, hiding, shaking, panting, escape attempts, and clinging to a familiar person are all symptoms of storm phobia.
Some dogs' fear is linked to the loud sound of nearby thunder. However, many dogs generalize their storm-associated fear to other signs of impending storms. It is believed that dogs are able to sense a storm coming hours in advance due to a drop in barometric pressure. Some dogs become afraid of the sounds of falling rain and wind. Storm phobia tends to worsen with age except in a few cases in which loss of hearing actually helps.
Products for Storm Phobic Dogs
Among the common pet behavioral concerns, fear of thunderstorms ranks among the top. Consequently there are now many products marketed to dog owners that are meant to help lessen the anxiety experienced by storm phobic dogs:
- The ThunderShirt and Anxiety Wrap help some dogs by inducing a sense of calm similar to swaddling newborn babies.
- The Storm Defender cape is supposed to work by reducing the static electricity some dogs may sense during electrical storms.
Preparing a Safe 'Cave' for Your Pooch
Setting up a safe place for your dog to hide may be helpful. Many dogs retreat under the bed, behind the toilet, or inside a closet during storms. They are seeking comfort in a small cave-like space.
You can help your anxious dog by preparing a safe "cave" to have available when needed. It should be small enough for the dog to feel enclosed and deep enough to retreat into it and feel hidden. It should be dark and ideally be located somewhere with a sound absorbing environment, e.g., a box tipped on its side inside a carpeted closet full of clothes with the box opening facing away from the closet door.
Some animal behaviorists advocate desensitization therapy which involves teaching a dog to associate the sound of thunder with something pleasant. In the beginning, an owner may play a sound effects CD quietly in the background whenever the dog is engaging in a highly enjoyable behavior such as eating a meal or taking treats while being pet. Over time and after many practice sessions, the volume is increased until the dog has learned to associate the sound of the thunder with great things happening.
This will not be helpful for dogs who have learned to associate all the other signs of a storm with feeling panicked. And since we cannot mimic a drop in barometric pressure, desensitization therapy may not be possible for many dogs.
Prescription Anti-anxiety Medications
When the above efforts are not enough, and your dog is still experiencing a high level of anxiety during storms, drugs can help a lot. Short-acting prescription anti-anxiety medications given at the first sign of a storm or when the weather report indicates a high likelihood of thunderstorms can help immensely.
These drugs are only used as needed and wear off after a few hours. They can be sedating as a side-effect, but that's not how they work. It may take a few trials to find a dose that relieves your dog's level of fear and is not overly sedating. This option is not needed in mild cases, but for more moderate to severe cases, this is what often finally helps.
Dr. Kelly Kasum is an associate veterinarian at East Towne Veterinary Clinic. Dr. Kelly has practiced general small animal medicine and surgery in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.