Each week, Dr. Patrick Tate, chief of the veterinary staff and a general practitioner at , answers reader questions about pets. This week's question comes from Sarah Ronquillio of Affton.
Question: What can I do to help my dog cope with the fear of thunderstorms?
Answer: This is a very timely question since spring begins the season when many dogs experience “thunderstorm phobia.” It can be confusing to figure out what part of a storm frightens our canine friends the most. Are they reacting to lightning flashes, the sound of thunder, gusting wind or rain hitting the roof? Some animal behaviorists think dogs have more of a problem with barometric pressure changes and/or the static electricity build-up. In my experience, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the exact triggers.
Whatever the cause, it is important to address the issue as soon as your dog shows even the smallest sign of anxiety during a storm. The most common signs of thunderstorm phobia are restlessness, panting, salivating, hiding, whining, pacing, running away and destructive behavior. Storm phobia is considered a progressive behavioral disease — if ignored or treated incorrectly, the behavior can escalate as the dog gets older. A dog’s fear of storms often expands to include to fireworks, gunshots, airplanes, cars, construction sites, etc. Fearful dogs can injure themselves, their owners and their surroundings.
Consistent and effective treatment of thunderstorm phobia is difficult because both storms and dogs are unpredictable! Listed below are some ideas that might be helpful in dealing with storm anxiety. As always, talk with your veterinarian about what he/she would recommend for your pet’s unique situation.
1. Use counter-conditioning techniques. The goal is to condition your dog to associate thunderstorms with something he loves (like fetch, tug-of-war, special treats, etc). It is a good idea to start this as a puppy to prevent future problems. If your dog already has signs of storm phobia, start at whatever stimulus first elicits a sign of fear. For example, if a change in barometric pressure is the trigger, try to distract your dog during that phase with his favorite activities, games and even foods. The "treat" has to be highly desirable so that the emotional response it causes is more powerful than any fear elicited by the thunder. Don’t wait until your dog is out-of-control or this will not work. The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by dog behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell is an excellent resource on how to use counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques with dogs.
2. Desensitize your dog to the sound of thunderstorms. The goal is to get your dog used to the sound of storms and associate those sounds with good things like above. Play a CD of thunderstorm recordings for your dog before the rainy season begins and introduce favorite treats or toys while he listens. Start with low levels of sound, gradually increasing the volume over several weeks or months. Legacy Canine Behavior & Training publishes the Sounds Good audio CD series for dogs. You can purchase CDs that feature thunderstorms in addition to ones with fireworks, babies, barking dogs, kitchen sounds, dog shows and vacuum cleaners.
3. Create a “safe space” where your dog can go during storms. Notice where your dog seems to feel most comfortable when he is anxious and make sure he has access. This could be a crate covered in blankets, a closet with a special dog bed, a corner of the basement in a cardboard box, under the bed of a guest room, etc. Double check that the special place is actually “safe” and supervise if possible (I’ve known several unsupervised dogs that have chewed through drywall during storms).
4. Put a pressure garment on your dog. This treatment is based on the theory that “swaddling” provides a sense of comfort and safety and distracts the dog from fears and inappropriate behaviors (sometimes called “overshadowing”). There are now many types of wraps, capes and vests on the market designed to decrease a dog’s anxiety and/or promote better behavior. Quite a few of my clients have reported good results with their dogs and pressure garments. One of the most popular is the Thundershirt. For a dog with static electricity issues, the metallic–lined Storm Defender Cape is recommended.
5. Consider sound therapy. Veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner and psycho-acoustic expert Joshua Leeds have written a book (with companion CD) based on years of research about the effect of sound on dogs. Through a Dog’s Ears provides tips and specially produced music to help counteract thunderstorm anxiety and other behavior problems.
6. Look into some alternative, “holistic” remedies. There are a variety of holistic therapies that may be helpful with dog anxiety. Some of the most popular are Dog Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P.) Therapy with Comfort Zone products and homeopathic flower essences like Rescue Remedy. Clients have also have tried massage, herbal remedies, light therapy, aromatherapy, etc. A good resource on alternative methods for treating thunderstorm phobia is a booklet by Claudeen McAuliffe called The Big Bang! How You Can Help Your Dog Cope With Thunderstorms and Fireworks.
7. Consult with your veterinarian about the use of prescription anti-anxiety medications. Studies have shown that the most effective treatment of severe thunderstorm phobia is a combination of counter conditioning and prescription anti-anxiety medications. After 30 years of working with dogs that have thunderstorm issues (and experiencing it with some of my own dogs), I would have to agree with the studies. In some cases, owners will keep their dogs on medication for the whole storm season, while most only medicate as needed. Thunderstorm phobia can be very debilitating to our pets, and prescription medication (combined with other therapies) is often the best treatment.