This is the season to be miserable for certain anxious dogs who are terrified by the unwelcome arrival of summer thunderstorms, complete with lightning, the rumbling or sharp cracking sound of thunder itself, heralded and accompanied by darkening skies, gusting winds and heavy rain. Before and during the storm there may be other cues that dogs can detect and associate with the storm, such as changes in barometric pressure, static electric field and, possibly, even ionized particles in the air. Either way, this whole gestalt of the thunderstorm experience strikes pure terror into the hearts of certain dogs.
Certain types and breeds of dogs seem more prone to thunderstorm phobia. The typical storm phobic dog is largish in size, weighs more than fifty pounds, and has a dense coat. Herding breeds and their crosses are overrepresented in this troubling condition.
Clinical signs range from clinginess, hiding, panting, pacing, whining, and shaking in sheer terror. In extreme cases, dogs exposed to a raging thunderstorm in their owner’s absence will destroy things in frantic attempts to escape from the home. Some dogs succeed in breaking through fly screens, may leap to “safety” from a second or third story window and, if unhurt by the fall, will run for miles, often into the next town to be rounded up by animal control. When owners are asked when their dog first developed fear of thunderstorms they report seeing signs before their dog is a year old but the condition often acutely worsens dramatically between five and nine years of age. It is at this stage that owners seek help from a veterinarian or a behaviorist. The sudden exacerbation of storm phobia mid-like often occurs during a particularly violent storm.
Years ago, I saw three German shepherds one after the other with severe thunderstorm phobia all of whom sought sanctuary by jumping into a sink or hand washing basin. Soon after, I encountered other dogs who took refuge in the bath, shower pedestal, Jacuzzi, behind the toilet tank – and one dog sought out a kiddy play pool where it would stand up to its ankles in water during storms. It occurred to me that all these places are electrical “grounds” and would prevent the buildup of static electricity in the dog’s coat. My “static electrical theory” of thunderstorm phobia was born. As some confirmation of this theory, I had several owners report that they got static shocks from their dog when they touched it during a storm. It wasn’t so much that being charged with static electricity during storms that was aversive – I conjectured – but that if the statically charged dogs touched some metal object (with their nose perhaps), they would receive a painful electrical jolt to confirm that storms were not only scary but also that they bite! This would account for the sudden exacerbation of storm phobia mid-life as well as dog’s ability to detect storms well before they arrive (static fields change before and during a storm).
The static theory may not apply to all dogs with thunderstorm phobia, however, as only fifty percent of the dogs in our study manifested what I came to refer to as bathroom seeking behavior. The remaining dogs may have had just plain noise phobia.
Thunderstorm phobia is not easy to treat behaviorally as the standard method of dealing with fears, that is, systematic desensitization along with counterconditioning, does not seem to work for thunderstorm phobia. While there are numerous CD’s available on the market for such desensitization, it is something of a fool’s errand to even try this approach as it is so unsuccessful. The reason for this lack of success is probably the multi-faced nature of storms — thunderstorms do not simply deliver a scary loud noise but have all the other features of thunderstorms referred to above.
Here is what you can do to help a dog who is terrified of storms.
- Prevent or attenuate exposure to the full brunt of the storm. This may be difficult in some living situations but others are set up for it. The ideal situation would be to convert a semi-subterranean finished basement into a thunderstorm bunker in which the dog’s exposure to all the elements of the storm is minimized. This idea is similar in concept to that of a tornado bunker in the tornado belt of the Midwest. The safe place is prepared by blocking off all windows so that there is nothing to see outside that can terrify the dog. The safe place should be lit with bright lights to minimize the sight of any stray lightning flashes around the edge of curtains or cardboard insets in the windows. Also, the safe place should be bathed in soothing music to cause relaxation and to act as white noise to drown out faint sounds of thunder. The area should be equipped with food, water, toys, a dog bed, and initially the owner should take the dog to the safe place at the onset of a storm and engage in some fun activities – like clicker training – with their dog. Yes, initially the dog must be trained to go to the safe place but in time will learn that this – and not the sink or bath – provide the best protection.
- Anti-static storm wear – There are several proprietary jackets that dogs can be fitted with during storms to help reduce the aversive nature of the experience. Two of them work through pressure, specifically the Anxiety Wrap® and Thunder Shirt®. They may provide some comfort but, in my view, the Storm Defender®, works best and we have some evidence to support this view. Storm Defender® is a little different from the other jackets in that, as well as providing controlled pressure, it has an anti-static lining and prevents the buildup of static electricity in the dog’s coat. In one study we conducted, Storm Defender® reduced signs of thunderstorm phobia by seventy percent.
- Medication – Although we don’t take medicating dogs lightly, this is often the only thing that can be done to assuage the extreme anxiety of seriously affected dogs. Typically Prozac®, or a related drug, is used as background therapy on a daily basis to stabilize the dog’s mood and build confidence. Secondly, an “as needed” medication in the form of a Valium-like drug, such as Xanax® (anti-anxiety medication) or clonidine (which attenuates the fear response) are the ones we recommend. Both these medications must be given an hour or two before a storm arrives, which means that owners must pay attention to the weather forecast or sign up for storm warnings on their cell phone so that they know when to give these medications. Using a combination approach like this — in one largish study — thirty-two out of thirty-two dogs showed improvement in all manifestations of thunderstorm phobia and two were considered cured. By the way, don’t try this at home … always seek you veterinarians advice before giving your dog any prescription medication.
A very difficult situation occurs when thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety co-exist. Unfortunately, this situation prevails in about forty percent of dogs with thunderstorm phobia. In such dogs, they may just about be able to hold things together during a storm when their owner is present but things are much worse when a storm occurs in the owner’s absence. These are the dogs who destroy property; the ones who jump out of windows and run for miles. In such dogs it is important to address separation anxiety and thunderstorm phobia simultaneously for improvement to be made. It probably preferable not to leave such dogs home alone during storms unless absolutely unavoidable. When storms are forecast, such dogs should preferably be boarded with a friend or relative, perhaps one with a dog because this is one condition in which the presence of another dog has a beneficial effect. Owners can also make use of boarding kennels, the vet’s office, or even bring their dog to work, anything rather than leave it alone during a storm. A combination of treatment of thunderstorm phobia and avoidance can together can work to produce a livable situation and make these phobia dogs’ lives easier. “Where there’s a light, there’s a way,” it is said, but where there’s lightning (and thunder) there are dogs who desperately need our help and support. Severe cases may be turned into shelters by unwitting owners who don’t realize that something can be done to help their terrified pet and prevent occasional serious damage to their home. Rest assured that it is now possible to successfully manage thunderstorm phobia in the vast majority of cases. Just come and see us if anyone tells you otherwise!