Thunderstorm phobia is a disorder in which there is persistent and exaggerated fear of storms, or the stimuli associated with storms. To treat this condition, your veterinarian should have some grasp of pathophysiology, as this phobia involves physiologic, emotional, and behavioral components.
Thunderstorm phobia occurs in both dogs and cats, but dogs are often more susceptible to this type of fear. If you would like to learn more about how this condition affects cats, please visit this page in the petMD health library.
Symptoms and Types
Stimuli that elicit fear include rain, lightning thunder, strong winds, and possibly changes in barometric pressure and static electricity. This fear may then induce one of more of the following signs:
- Hiding/remaining near the owner
- Excessive salivation (ptyalism)
- Excessive vocalization
- Self-inflicted trauma
- Fecal incontinence
It may also affect some body systems in a variety of ways, including:
- Endocrine/ metabolic—increased cortisol levels, stress-induced hyperglycemia
- Gastrointestinal—inappetence, gastrointestinal upset
- Musculoskeletal—self-induced trauma resulting from escape attempts
- Nervous—adrenergic/nor-adrenergic overstimulation
- Skin—acral lick dermatitis
The exact cause of thunderstorm phobia is unknown, but it may include a combination of the following factors:
- Lack of exposure to storms early in development
- Unintentional reinforcement of fear response by owner
- A genetic predisposition for emotional reactivity
A veterinarian will rule out any conditions which can cause similar behavioral responses such as separation anxiety, barrier frustration, and noise phobias. Otherwise, they will conduct further tests to identify any conditions or abnormalities that may have arisen from effect of the fear to the thunderstorm.
It is important to avoid crate confinement, if you believe there is a risk of the dog injuring itself. Otherwise, there are forms of behavior modification or medication (e.g., antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs) that you can request from your veterinarian.
- Neither punish nor attempt to comfort the dog during storms.
- Desensitization and counter-conditioning are often used in combination.
- Desensitization involves exposure to a recorded stimulus at a volume that does not elicit fear. The volume is gradually increased only if the dog remains relaxed.
- Counter-conditioning involves teaching a response (sit, relax) that is incompatible with the fear response. Food rewards are often used to facilitate learning.
- Audio recordings of storms are commercially available. Other than storm sounds, it is difficult to reproduce the natural stimuli that occur during thunderstorms.
Please consult an expert before implementing these forms of behavior modification,as improper use of these exercises can worsen the condition.
Living and Management
If your dog is given medication, complete blood count (CBC) and biochemistry profiles should be monitored by your veterinarian periodically. Prognosis depends on severity, duration, and the dog's ability to avoid injuries. However, the condition may worsen if left untreated.
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