Boom! Boom! Helping Your Dog with Thunderstorm Phobias

This entry is article 3 of 5 in the July 2014 issue

Causes and Signs of Thunderstorm Phobias

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Many think that the most logical cause for a dog’s fear of thunderstorms is the loud noise, but the lightning flashes, accompanied by heavy pounding of rain and the changes in the atmosphere and barometric pressure can also affect a dog’s senses. It has been documented that the buildup of static electricity in the atmosphere can be uncomfortable and may be detected before a storm rolls in, triggering a fear even before that first boom of thunder occurs.

Dogs with thunderstorm phobia show signs that are usually quite apparent. They may become overwhelmed with fear and show physical signs, such as panting, whining, or pacing. They may also show other signs of stress, including dilated pupils, drooling, or rapid heartbeat. Some dogs will run and hide out of fear.

Preventing and Treating

So what is the best approach to treat a thunderstorm phobia? There are a number of steps one can take to combat noise phobias, including desensitization and counterconditioning. This involves eliminating or controlling the dog’s exposure to the stimulus. Some noise phobias, like fireworks and gunshots, can be treated this way. However, treating thunderstorm phobias is not as cut and dry and can be very difficult to control through the process of desensitization.

Essentially the best thing to do is to try to prevent affected dogs from being exposed to what it is they clearly do not like. Use basic common sense. Never leave your dog outside during a storm and do your best to remain calm and relaxed as your dog will sense your anxiety, fear or stress related to the storm.

Here you will find a few tips that may help you to wean your beloved Fido from his fear of storms.

1) Create a safe environment

Do everything possible to limit your dog’s exposure to storms. According to Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, of Tufts Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Behavior Clinic, “a finished basement is a perfect place to start and, ideally, it should have no windows so the storm cannot be seen by the dog. If possible, block off small windows with cardboard or thick, lined curtains.” If using basement space is not an option, she suggests you can create another safe space by sound-proofing a room and incorporating window coverings. A crate with a soft and cozy bed inside the room might make your dog feel safer. Wherever the safe room is, it should allow easy access and house a comfy bed and some essentials like food, water, treats and toys. A few tips to keep in mind for your safe space:

  • Play calming music (MusicMyPet.com, PetMusic.com) in the safe space at a volume comfortable enough to drown out the sounds of thunder. Dr. Borns-Weil has found playing her guitar has worked for her dog, who, like so many others, has a thunderstorm phobia.
  • Keep the lights on in the room so any flashes of lightning that may squeeze through window coverings won’t be too apparent.
  • Take some time to play with your dog in the room when it’s not storming. It’s important that you get your dog to feel comfortable and safe in the room. Your goal is to get him/her to go there without prompting when they sense a thunderstorm is looming, 24/7, even when you are not home. Keep in mind that by over-comforting your dog during a storm you may suggest to the pet that there really is something to be afraid of. On the flip side, you don’t want to punish your pet for showing fear. Instead you should project confidence. If you are home distract your dog by playing, grooming or engaging in other activities your pet will enjoy.

2) Consider purchasing storm wear for your dog

There are a few options to choose from, including the Storm Defender, Anxiety Wrap and the Thundershirt. The Storm Defender wraps has anti-static linings that may decrease the uncomfortable feeling of static in your dog’s coat. The Anxiety Wrap and Thundershirt give dogs a feeling of being swaddled, which can be comforting to them during stormy weather.

3) Anti-anxiety medications may be needed

While many dog owners may be opposed to their dog taking these types of medications, the benefits often may outweigh the alternative. These medications can be given at the first sign of a storm or may be prescribed for an ongoing period to help manage your pet’s anxiety behaviors. Anxitane (L-theonine), an over-the–counter nutriceutical may also be helpful for some dogs.

Consult with an Animal Behavior Specialist

Whether it’s thunderstorms, fireworks or gunshots that your pet is afraid of, you may consider consulting an animal behavior specialist, who can advise you on how best to address your dog’s fear as there isn’t always a standardized solution. Tufts Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine has behavioral specialists, who are specially trained and can advise you on how best to manage your pet’s phobia. You may contact the office at 508-887-4640 to make an appointment.

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