Understanding, Diagnosing, and Managing Canine Thunder Phobia

 

If your dog seems overwhelmed or inconsolable during storms, they may have astraphobia, or an extreme fear of thunder and lightning. While fear and anxiety are natural responses to stress and danger, phobias are involuntary and irrational reactions to an event or stimulus. This means that a dog with thunder phobia does not have control over their response to storms. Like dogs with noise phobia, dogs who have thunder phobia exhibit unusual behavior, often cowering, hiding, chewing on themselves, or even destroying furniture. It’s difficult to see dogs react this way, knowing that there is much about thunder phobia – including changes in humidity and the smell of rain – that is out of our control. Luckily, there are many methods, medications, and therapeutic products that can help you manage canine thunder phobia. The first step is to observe your dog’s behavior during storms critically, so you can figure out what is triggering their irrational reactions – and why.

 

What are Common Symptoms of Thunder Phobia?

 

A dog with thunder phobia will appear uncontrollably uncomfortable, fearful, or even aggressive. The symptoms of thunder phobia typically develop in adult dogs and may intensify as your dog ages, leading to disruptive and dangerous behaviors such as self-harming, vomiting, and even panic attacks. In a recent study where thunder phobic dogs were exposed to the simulated sounds of a thunderstorm, a 207% increase in their salivary cortisol – or hormonal stress levels – was recorded. An excessive level of this “fight or flight” hormone will drastically affect the way in which your dog responds to stressful stimuli. These irrepressible emotions may even cause them to go to the bathroom in your home or rip up your furniture.

 

If left unchecked, symptoms of thunder phobia can become more generalized – to the point where even a windy day or a gentle rain will elicit the same fearful response as thunderstorms. Anything associated with a storm – even the change in pressure and humidity – can cause intense fear. Once this association is established, it becomes very difficult to remove the fear.

 

How Did My Dog Develop Thunder Phobia?

 

Your dog’s thunder phobia may have begun in part as a rational and evolutionary response to protect themselves from the potential danger associated with storms. However, these fearful instincts can quickly develop into irrational and uncontrollable fears. The primary cause(s) – often multi-layered – of canine thunder phobia often involve:

  • Trauma – For many dogs, there is a traumatic component to their fear. If your dog had a terrifying experience, such as being left out during a storm, they may have developed a negative association and may expect every storm to put them in danger.
  • Negative reinforcement – If your dog was ever scolded for their fear of storms, this can worsen their phobia in the long run. Negative reinforcement is often unintentional; it is a reaction to an aggravating situation. However, in order to reduce thunder phobia, it is essential that owners remain calm during thunderstorms, only attempting to subtly change their dog’s behavior with positive reinforcement.
  • Lack of exposure to stimuli – Common among rescue animals, if your dog had limited experiences as a puppy, they may not have had enough exposure to loud noises. Thus, any foreign sound may startle them.
  • Health Issues and Senior Dogs – Due to the changes in barometric pressure and humidity, dogs with orthopedic issues or arthritis – common in senior pets – may experience more pain during storms. These atmospheric changes can even cause ear pain and affect a dog’s senses.
  • Genetics – Herding breeds “are over-represented in canine storm phobia demographics,” according to the Veterinary Practice News.

 

Pinpointing Complicating Factors

 

As you analyze your dog’s behavior in order to pinpoint the cause(s) of their thunder phobia, it is important to be aware of the other possible anxieties at play that could complicate the diagnosis, including:

  • Noise Anxiety – Does your dog get anxious just during storms, or do all noises affect them? If your dog is affected by all noises – not just thunderstorms – they may have noise anxiety, in addition to thunder phobia. A whopping 50% of dogs have noise phobia.
  • Separation Anxiety (CSA) – According to the American Animal Hospital Association, at least 40% of dogs with noise phobia also suffer from separation anxiety.

Once you have observed your dog’s symptoms and listed what appears to be upsetting and triggering them, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist can help you backtrack in order to pinpoint the causes of the phobia and create a unique treatment plan tailored to your dog’s specific needs.

 

How to Manage Your Dog’s Thunder Phobia

 

Before you begin treating your dog’s thunder phobia, it is important that all dogs with noise sensitivity have a veterinary check-up in order to rule out painful underlying conditions. If there is pain present that is aggravating your dog’s phobia, treating that issue first will allow you to better understand your dog’s emotional state.

 

After you have ruled out underlying conditions and have found a veterinary behaviorist to assist you, there are some easy first steps you can take to manage your pup’s behavior during storms:

  • Anticipate the impending storm so that you can keep your dog as far away from the sounds of the storm as possible. The earlier you can distract them from the storm, the better.
  • Create a safe environment: Set up their crate or bed in a quiet room so that they have somewhere safe to which they can escape.
  • If possible, stay home with them during the storm.
  • Pay attention to your behavior too – your dog will pick up on and feed off of your anxiety. Comfort them, but try to go about your normal routine.
  • Provide “sacrifice items” such as cardboard boxes – they may help your dog displace their storm phobia.
  • If you have a multi-dog household, separate the thunder phobic dog from his or her housemate in order to avoid potentially aggressive behavior.

Once you have implemented these measures, it’s time to tailor a multi-modal treatment plan to your pup’s particular needs.

The Importance of Multi-Modal Treatment Plans

 

Due to the complicated, multi-faceted nature of phobias and the unpredictability of storms, a multi-modal treatment regimen – including behavioral training, therapeutic products, and/or medications – is often essential in order to manage the unique challenges related to thunder phobia. It is important to work with a professional behaviorist when you implement these treatment plans, as they can help you identify the correct methods for your dog’s specific needs.

 

Desensitization

 

Desensitization works by gradually introducing your dog to the sounds of storms in a safe and contained manner. Experts recommend playing audio of storm noises for about 5-10 minutes a day, gradually increasing the intensity. Unfortunately, because an audio recording cannot recreate the full effect of a storm – such as smells and air pressure – this method is not always successful.

 

Counterconditioning

 

Counterconditioning helps teach your dog to associate something good happening with a storm. Some successful counterconditioning methods for thunder phobia include:

  • Planning calming and exciting activities – Keep your dog from focusing on the storm by distracting them with relaxing sounds and games! For example, try turning on the TV or sound machine and giving them their favorite chew toy or puzzle (chewing is a proven canine stress reliever!)
  • Positive reinforcement – Reward your dog when they are calm and encourage playfulness and relaxation! Veterinary Practice News calls these exciting activities “storm parties,” because they give your dog something special to look forward to when they realize a storm is coming.

 

Medications for Managing Thunder Phobia

 

For many thunder phobia cases, anti-anxiety and/or anti-depression medications are helpful. In order to get the full effect of the medication and carefully introduce the drug to your pet’s system, professionals recommend beginning treatment about a month before storm season. For some cases, a fast-acting medication such as benzodiazepine can be given about an hour before the start of a storm. Although these medications can be life-savers for suffering pups, it is important to remember that pharmaceuticals are temporary and may have serious side effects; some dogs may even become hyperactive or aggressive when taking these medications. Always speak with a professional before opting to medicate your pet! Learn more about the pros and cons of medicating anxious dogs by visiting this page.

Thundershirt for Dogs: A Popular Therapeutic Treatment Option

 

Calming vests and wraps like thundershirts, which have no side effects and can even be left on all day, have been shown to reduce noise-related phobias. In a recent study conducted by the manufacturer, 87% of owners reported that the ThunderShirt for dogs was helpful in improving behavior during noise events. However, some owners report a reduction in effectiveness if the compression shirt is worn for long periods of time. Learn more about thundershirts.

Pheromones and CBD: Are They Effective?

 

Pheromones that contain synthetic versions of the dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) – which come in the form of diffusers, collars, and sprays – have been found to help some mildly anxious dogs. Learn more about how pheromones work.

 

CBD has been used in very small quantities to calm anxious dogs, however, there is not yet a consensus in the veterinary community regarding its safety or effectiveness. Consult your veterinarian before considering CBD for your pup.

Calmer Canine®: A Breakthrough Treatment for Thunder Phobia

 

Calmer Canine®, proven to dramatically reduce canine separation anxiety, has also helped countless dogs suffering from thunder phobia. Owner of Total Petcare LLC, Rebecca Gridley, has a dog named Beefy who was suffering from thunder phobia – as well as a fear of fireworks – before she started using Calmer Canine. After using the device for four weeks, Beefy is now sleeping through thunderstorms. While before he would cling to Rebecca’s side, now he doesn’t even need a CBD treat to stay calm! Calmer Canine achieves this result by using targeted pulsed electromagnetic field (tPEMF™) therapy to reduce inflammation in the amygdala – the exact location in the brain that processes those involuntary fears and anxieties associated with thunder phobia. Over time, Calmer Canine minimizes this inflammation in the brain, calming your dog’s overwhelming emotions and bringing them below their threshold. This means that your dog will be in a more relaxed state, which will make it more likely that any behavioral techniques implemented will be effective and long-lasting.

 

Next Steps for You and Your Pup

 

Although these improvements and changes will help you get a handle on your dog’s thunder phobia, remember that, at the end of the day, there’s still a lack of control – for you and for your dog – when the storm rolls in. The goal is to get as much command over the situation as you can. So, stay calm, focus on what is in your control, and, most importantly, weather the storm together!


DISCLAIMER: Calmer Canine does not intend to provide medical advice and this article is not written by a medical professional. The information provided in this piece is for educational purposes only. Consult your veterinarian before deciding on a treatment plan.