Features January 2015 Issue

If Your Dog is Afraid of Thunder

How to help thunder-phobic dogs.

Apologies to that rockabilly Eddie Rabbitt, but not everyone loves a rainy night. Especially if there’s thunder and lightning. Fear of thunderstorms – formally called astraphobia – is surprisingly common in dogs; some experts estimate that up to 30 percent are affected with it to some degree or another. (Most cats, apparently, couldn’t care less.) The most severely thunderstorm-phobic dogs can become intensely fearful and panicked, to the point where they become a hazard to themselves.

“I’ve seen them go right through windows, and chew through doors, drywall, even chain-link fences, breaking off their teeth and nails,” says holistic veterinarian Stephen Blake of San Diego. “They get into such a level of panic that they just aren’t thinking.”

dog hiding from thunder

If possible, make sure your thunder-phobic dog has easy access to whatever “safe place” he’s found to hide in when storms are raging nearby. Keeping him from his sanctuary may cause even greater problems and increase his anxiety.

In some cases, owners are able to trace a dog’s fear to an identifiable trigger. “Some dogs definitely have experienced something bad that makes them afraid of thunder,” says Nancy A. Dreschel, DVM, PhD, who has studied and written about thunderstorm phobia. As part of her research, Dr. Dreschel, an instructor of companion-animal science at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, met a dog who slept happily in the family room of his house – until a wood stove in the same room got struck by lightning. He was afraid of storms ever since. And can you blame him?

Often, a conditioned response like that can be reversed, Dr. Dreschel says, through counter-conditioning, that is, pairing the negative stimulus with something the dog enjoys, such as food. It’s the more ambiguous cases, where the dog just seems to develop a thunderstorm fear out of the blue, that are more challenging, because no one really understands what elicited the initial reaction, and the dogs aren’t talking.

“Some theories suggest that there is something aversive about the storm itself,” Dr. Dreschel explains, with guesses ranging from increased static electricity to changes in barometric pressure. “Perhaps there are things in the air that are uncomfortable to the dog, so his skin or his fur hurts. Maybe the storm-associated noise is actually painful to dogs; they hear things that we can’t.”

Another theory suggests that some dogs are genetically predisposed to thunderstorm sensitivity, including Golden Retrievers and some herding breeds.

Preventing Thunder Fear in Dogs

It can seem as if the recommendations for preventing these intense reactions to thunderstorms – or at least making them more manageable – are as numerous and varied as the affected dogs themselves. What most everyone can agree on this: There is no sure bet, no tried-and-true cure. What works for one dog might have zero effect on another.

Trial and error, then, is your best bet. Be open-minded and creative in how you approach this problem. Dr. Dreschel recalls that one of the dogs in her study would be terrified of storms while in the house, but, inexplicably, did just fine in the car. While she does not recommend a rain-drenched trip to the minivan for every dog – if it didn’t work, the potential toll on your upholstery could be staggering – she does applaud the spirit behind it.

“It’s a very individual thing,” she says about helping a dog through storm sensitivity. “You just have to keep trying.”

Many veterinarians and behaviorists recommend working to prevent the problem before it begins, by rewarding the dog as a puppy whenever she is exposed to the sights and sounds of a storm. Have lots of extra-special treats on hand; repeated reinforcement teaches the dog that raindrops and thunder claps mean the yummies are on their way.

To desensitize dogs who have exhibited stress behaviors during a storm, Katherine Houpt, DVM, professor emeritus at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, uses a storm-simulation CD, initially played at low volume. As a reward, “the dog gets something he never gets otherwise – for example, only salami when you do desensitization.” When the dog hears the storm sounds, teach him to go to the safe place where he will ride out the storm. (More on that below.)

In subsequent sessions, gradually increase the volume of the CD. If your dog is taking and eating the treats, then chances are he is coping well, since there is an inverse relationship between stress and appetite. If he stops taking the treats, reduce the audio level until he’s comfortable enough to eat again.

Dr. Houpt recommends adding flashing lights to the desensitization process, recalling one ingenious client who used strobe lights. But most people, she admits, aren’t that zealous. “For the lazier ones, I say play the CD whenever you feed the dog.”

The limitations of the CD storm sounds, of course, are that they are just one sliver of the experience. Dr. Dreschel recalls a storm-sensitive dog who sailed through the audio experience, “but during the first storm of the spring, he ate through a door.” That said, if the CD can desensitize the dog to at least the sound part of the thunderstorm experience, it might lower her overall anxiety – a good thing!

Create a Den Environment

Thunder-sensitive dogs benefit from having a sanctuary when storms roll through. “Provide them with a safe spot, in a basement, or in a crate,” Dr. Dreschel advises. Think about places that would offer a sense of sheltering enclosure, such as the back of a closet. Often, your dog will show you where she thinks she will be most comfortable. The feeling of being enclosed and buffered is important, so draping a crate with a heavy blanket can also help.

Not all hidey holes are equal, however. Dr. Dreschel notes that many dogs will seek out tiled rooms such as bathrooms, as well as showers, bathtubs, even that hard-to-reach space behind the toilet. “Some people have wondered if it has to do with being grounded and not statically charged,” she muses. Similarly, other experts report that dogs seem to do better in metal crates rather than plastic ones, perhaps also because of their conductivity.

Since the storm is associated with flashing lights, select a low-light or well-curtained environment, or even, ideally, a room without windows.

A word of caution: Severely phobic dogs often panic during a storm, trying to escape at any cost to themselves or their surroundings. In such cases, a crated dog can inflict great damage on himself. Conversely, whatever “den” environment you provide, situate it so the dog has access to it whenever he likes.

calming jacket for dog scared of thunder

Photo Courtesy Thundershirt.com

Thundershirts are tight-fitting coats with adjustable Velcro fasteners. The product concept sounds nutty, but thousands of owners count on them to calm their thunder-phobic dogs.

Use a Calming Jacket

Some owners of thunderstorm-sensitive dogs report amazing results from body-wrap products such as the Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt, which apply gentle, steady, constant pressure, sort of like sartorial acupressure.

“The pressure wraps work for the same reason that swaddling a baby works,” Dr. Houpt explains; they provide a comforting sense of being gently held.

Dr. Houpt draws a parallel to the work of Temple Grandin, whose autism gave her insights into lower-stress livestock handling methods. “She felt that pressure calmed her, just as putting a steer in a pressure sling does.” As a young woman, Grandin designed a self-operated hydraulic “hugging machine” that would dispense therapeutic, stress-relieving pressure that triggered a sense of well-being.

Try Medication in Extreme Cases

Melatonin, an important hormone that creates an overall feeling of well-being, is high on the list of supplements to try for storm-sensitive dogs. Dr. Dreschel uses it on her own thunderstorm-phobic dog, a scruffy black mixed-breed she acquired 12 years ago, in the middle of her research.

But dogs with more severe storm reactions are perfect candidates for anti-anxiety drugs. While many owners are reluctant to medicate their anxious dogs, Dr. Dreschel notes that anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals can be incredibly useful for reducing irrational phobias.

Please note that tranquilizers sedate the dog but do not address her underlying anxiety; they can, in fact, significantly worsen the anxiety, and so are contraindicated for thunder-phobic dogs. In contrast, anti-anxiety medications can help prevent a panicked state in storm-phobic dogs.

“Dogs who are phobic can’t be distracted,” Dr. Dreschel says. “It’s like a person having a panic attack.” Drugs can lower the stress threshold, “so that maybe you can get the dog to think.” Until a dog is in that more stable state, she can’t process information well or learn to manage her stress response.

Dr. Houpt generally recommends a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), such as a generic form of Prozac. These drugs work by blocking a receptor in the brain that absorbs serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is important in maintaining mood balance; this has the net effect of increasing the amount of available serotonin. A dog needs to be maintained on this drug long-term in order for it to be helpful; it’s not a “give as needed” solution.

 In contrast are antidepressants such as Trazodone or alprazolam (the generic form of Xanax). These drugs may be given situationally, as needed, so the dog doesn’t have to be on meds all the time, only when a storm is coming. While many owners are hesitant to fill psychotropic prescriptions for their dogs, most are more accepting of the as-needed approach: “A storm is coming, give the dog her meds.”

This is important, because behavior experts suggest that getting the seriously phobic dog on medication sooner is better. “My pet peeve is that people wait too long” before giving the drugs, Dr. Houpt says. Similar to taking migraine medication before the head-splitting pain begins, “you don’t want to give it once the dog is terrified; if a thunderstorm is forecast, give medication now.”

Holistic Remedies for Fear of Thunder

In addition to a conventional medical approach, there are several holistic remedies that are well worth a try.

When those black clouds start gathering over a thunder-phobic dog, Dr. Blake’s first line of defense are flower essences. Distilled from the blooms of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants, these tinctures are considered very safe and can have an emotionally centering effect.

Dr. Blake uses Rescue Remedy, a combination of five essences that “are good for panic situations,” he says. “If you know there’s a storm coming, you can put four drops in the dog’s drinking water. Or you can put them in a spritz bottle with water, and when the dog starts to get antsy, mist him with it, or mist your hand and rub it on his face.”

Because flower essences are so gentle, “you can do this every few minutes, and it can reinforce the calming effect,” he says. “It takes the edge off.” Other flower essences to consider are mimulus (for dogs who are focused on the storm), aspen (for dogs who seem spooked in general) and rock rose (for panic).

Dr. Blake also has had some luck with gemmotherapy, which uses herbal extracts from the buds and emerging shoots of plants. “Lime is really good for calming and detoxing the nervous system,” he explains. “And walnut is a good one for transition.” As with flower essences, one to five drops of the tinctures can be added to the dog’s drinking water whenever needed.

More Holistic Options

Every major system of healing has an approach for dealing with acute panic and stress. In homeopathy, the remedy Dr. Blake reaches for is usually aconite, “which is very commonly used for panic attacks and fear.” Again, use the same technique for administering the white homeopathic pellets, which can be crushed and added to drinking water or a spray bottle. “You want to get it on their mucous membranes,” he says.

Essential oils are still another option. Lavender is traditionally used for calming, but Dr. Blake also likes an oil blend by Young Living called Peace & Calming that includes tangerine, orange, ylang ylang, patchouli, and blue tansy.

Dilute the oil in a carrier oil such as almond or olive oil (lavender on its own is so gentle it can be used “neat”), put a few drops on your fingers, and rub it into your dog’s ear flaps. “In Chinese medicine, the ears are the conduit to the kidneys, and kidneys are where the fear hangs out,” Dr. Blake explains. “It gets into the bloodstream quickly that way.”

From a holistic point of view, thunderstorm phobia is an indication of a deeper-seated imbalance. While these remedies can help mitigate the symptoms, Dr. Blake recommends working with a holistic or homeopathic vet to get to the source of the imbalance and correct it.

Calming Music

Dr. Blake has used classical music for a variety of behavioral issues in dogs, including separation anxiety and, of course, thunderstorm sensitivity. “Basically, you’re just trying to distract them a little bit,” he explains.

But all music isn’t equal when it comes to eliciting a therapeutic effect. The idea is to calm the dog, not excite her further. So when the Sturm und Drang begins, think Mozart, not Metallica.

For her part, Dr. Houpt recommends the Through a Dog’s Ear CDs and podcasts. The company’s classical-music selections are “psychoacoustically” designed to be easily assimilated by dogs, helping to enhance mood and active listening.

Be There for Your Dog

It sounds so very basic, but literally being there for your dog – if your schedule permits, and if the weather report is accurate enough to allow for advance planning – can go a long way toward helping her weather the emotional storm as much as the meteorological one. Your presence adds to your dog’s sense of security, which is what she needs most at this stressful time.

Dr. Dreschel reminds us that the theory that frightened dogs should not be comforted has been disproven. “When dogs are really phobic like that, you’re not reinforcing the behavior,” she says. “If they’re in that drooling, pacing mode, I’d go ahead and comfort them.” As for puppies or mildly affected dogs, who still are thinking and able to learn in the moment, “I would distract them,” she says. “And then make it positive.”

Denise Flaim of Revodana Ridgebacks in Long Island, New York, shares her home with three Ridgebacks, 11-year-old triplets, and a very patient husband.

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