Atlanta. July. The weather forecast remains the same each day—ridiculously hot, miserably humid, and at least a 40% chance of thunderstorms. For most of us, the thunderstorms present little more than a minor inconvenience—they might make the evening commute more difficult, or interrupt plans outdoors. But for some of us, those afternoon thunderstorms represent something far more ominous—another torturous afternoon for our thunderstorm-phobic dogs.
Despite years of research, we still do not know what causes thunderstorm phobias in dogs. Some dogs seem to be genetically programmed to be fearful of thunderstorms. According to the AAHA, herding breeds and hounds display thunderstorm distress more frequently than other types of dogs. They may be responding to noise of the thunder, the flash of lightning, changes in pressure, or changes in the natural electrical field— we just don’t know. Other dogs develop thunderstorm phobia as the result of a bad experiences, such as my Shelties, Bock and Shadow.
Bock and Shadow did not develop a fear of thunderstorms until the middle of their lives. We moved to coastal North Carolina in 1996. During our time there we experienced hurricane after hurricane—Bertha, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd…and I may even be missing one or two. Each hurricane brought with it hours of high winds and heavy rains. The noise from the storms could be unbearable, leaving us all worried for our safety. The tall pines outside would whip violently with the winds, often breaking and causing tremendous damage to homes and property. The storms would be followed by days of oppressive heat made worse by a lack of electricity. Not having a generator, opening the windows was the best we could do to help cool the house.
Those storms and their aftermath left us all shaky and frightened, including the dogs. Bock and Shadow both developed severe cases of thunderstorm phobia following our first hurricane experience. They were able to identify a storm approaching over an hour before its arrival. Panting, pacing, whining, and hiding under the bed were all behaviors that preceded the arrival of a storm. Once the storm was upon us, both Shelties would shake violently, pant, and huddle as close to us a possible. As the storm passed, both dogs would fall into an exhausted sleep. Their fear of storms also became associated with other normal events, however, such as the opening of windows. At the time, I knew few ways to comfort my dogs, other than to just be there for them. Fortunately, our understanding of dog behavior has grown exponentially in the past fifteen years. We now have many highly effective interventions for thunderstorm phobic dogs which help ease their fear and anxiety.
Help your dog by learning to recognize subtle cues to stressed behavior so that you can act quickly with fear-reducing interventions. The first cues that your dog is becoming stressed may include whining, sweaty paws, lip licking, yawning, and overall restlessness. As he becomes more stressed, you may notice unexpected house training mistakes—diarrhea is common, rapid/shallow breathing or panting, drooling, shaking, and hiding in closets, under furniture, or even in bathtubs or showers. By intervening at the first signs of stress, you may prevent a major fear episode.
For dogs will mild thunderstorm phobia, food dispensing toys such as the Tug-A-Jug, Kibble Nibble, and Kong provide both mental and physical stimulation which helps reduce stress. I know that when my stress levels peak, I head straight for the fridge. Eating is a pleasant experience which helps alleviate my stress (at least until the next time I step on a scale…) Chewing provides similar stress relief for our dogs—but they don’t have access to the fridge like we do. Providing one of these toys may help your dog through thunderstorms. Eating the food released from the toy is a pleasant experience for the dog, which classically conditions the dog to view the storms in a more positive light. Other chew toys may also provide relief. I prefer bully sticks as they are high in nutrients and fully digestible, unlike rawhide. Hollow marrow bones are also effective, as the hollow center of the bone can be stuffed with human food items such as peanut butter or spray cheese.
For dogs with more severe thunderstorm distress, prepare a safe room for your dog. Identify the hiding spot your dog has chosen and adapt the space so that it provides even more comfort and safety. Crate trained dogs may prefer the safety of their crate. Covering the crate with a blanket may increase your dog’s comfort. I never close the crate door of a dog with thunderstorm phobia! If the dog panics, they may severely injure themselves by trying to escape the crate!
One of my favorite additions to a dog “safe-room” or crate area is Dog Appeasing Pheromone, marketed commonly as Comfort Zone or DAP. DAP is similar chemically to the pheromones produced by lactating bitches. It works because it reminds the dog of the security of being with mom and littermates. DAP is available in a spray form and as a plug-in diffuser. Adding DAP plug-in diffusers in the dog’s safe area may provide comfort. DAP spray can also be applied to a bandana worn around the dog’s neck or on your pant leg if he prefers to move around with you during a storm.
Music, such as Through a Dog’s Ear, a CD available through DogWise, www.dogwise.com, can also lessen anxiety associated with thunderstorms. We recommend Through a Dog’s Ear frequently, as the music was chosen specifically for its calming effect on dogs. Playing this music in the dog’s safe room/crate area during thunderstorms, other stressful events, or even in the car for trips may have a positive calming effect for fearful animals.
My favorite intervention for thunderstorm phobic dogs, by far, is the Thundershirt. Don’t be put-off by its appearance—yes, it does look like a doggy coat. But, no, I am not encouraging you to dress your dog up in cute outfits. The Thundershirt works by applying constant, gentle pressure on your dog’s body. Think of it as swaddling a baby—remember how an inconsolable infant falls asleep after being snugly swaddled in a blanket? The Thundershirt works the same way. Using pressure to relieve anxiety has been used in many settings for many years—and it really does work. Studies indicate that symptoms of anxiety are reduced in 80% of pets wearing a Thundershirt. The Thundershirt is available online at www.thundershirt.com, as well as in progressive pet stores such as Pet Supermarket. In a pinch, a tight-fitting t-shirt, or even an ace bandage wrapped around your dog’s abdominal area may provide similar relief as well.
Finally, drug intervention may be an appropriate choice to help your dog find relief during thunderstorm season. Natural remedies such as Rescue Remedy and Melatonin may provide relief for dogs with mild anxiety. For dogs with more extreme fear, Benadryl, Xanax, and Clomicalm may be necessary. Discuss these options with your veterinarian to determine which is best for your dog.
I cannot stress safety for you thunderstorm phobic dog strongly enough. Never leave a thunderstorm phobic dog outside unattended during thunderstorm season. Their desire to escape the storm may lead them to dig out or go over a fence. They quickly become lost and disoriented from their fear. Don’t let your dog’s fear lead to another tragedy—losing his family. All thunderstorm phobic dogs should be permanently identified by microchip, as well as always wearing collar ID tags.
I hope this information helps keep all of your pooches safe during thunderstorm season! If you have any questions on how to help your pet, please feel free to contact me, email@example.com. I would be more than happy to help!