Smell the fear: Thunderstorm phobia in dogs

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: July 03, 2017
Published: March 23, 2007
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The last 24 hours here in South Florida have been rainy ones. Brief squalls with light thunder have left us a little wetter than we expected. It’s an early reminder of what comes with each year’s long Miami summers: heavy rains, booming thunder and the threat of hurricanes.

As much as we hate to get the frequent drenching (no umbrella helps—I wear New England “foul weather gear” even in the summers) and as much as the hurricane stress grinds us down, some of our pets suffer much worse.

I’m talking about the thunderstorm phobics. Down here, the quality of the thunder (deafening blasts from the sky) makes for thousands of freaked out pets each year.

Thunderstorm phobia is a perfectly dog-like response to a natural threat. Like other basic fears that afflict all animals, this instinctive response is hard-wired into their doggie brains. Without it they might run around in inclement weather and get themselves struck by lightning.

However in some cases, the instinctive response is way out of proportion to the threat. After all, most dogs are indoors or otherwise well covered during a storm—the equivalent of huddling under a rock or hiding in a safe cave.

Most dogs hide under beds, hang out in their crate or sidle up to their favorite person during a storm. This level of fear is typical. But others demonstrate an astounding degree of canine anxiety.

I’ve known dogs to jump out of balconies, escape their yards to flee across six-lane highways, break their teeth trying to get out of their crates, and bloody their paws attempting escapes through locked windows and doors.

For these severe cases, thunderstorms present a very real threat to the health, well-being and ultimate survival of the afflicted dog—not to mention the sanity of the entire household.

Veterinarians have a serious challenge ahead of them when trying to alleviate the more severe symptoms of this phobia. Imagine sedating your dog every time you leave the house—just in case is storms. This all-too common solution means that our South Floridian dogs are likely to remain sedated for the entirety of our hurricane season, every year of their lives. That’s not exactly an acceptable solution.

Dr. Soraya Diaz is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist practicing at Coral Springs Animal Medical Center here in SoFla. Her insight as a canine and feline behavior specialist reveals that storm phobia is more common than you might think. She urges caution in ignoring mild signs like shivering under beds or hiding in the bathtub, noting that the severely fearful pets she sees were mildly affected at one time and progressed into severe phobia with each passing season.

As she emphatically asserts, “Thunderstorms [especially in South Florida] are horrible. They come on fast and bombard our pets with stimulation sixty times a year or more. Because we don’t really know which pets will remain static [in their response to storms] and which will progress to severe anxiety [and may even evolve into year-round separation anxiety]…it’s very important they all get treated as early on as possible.”

To that end, consider the following therapies and enlist your local vet’s help in choosing the right combination of approaches:

1-Behavior modification, using storm-sound CDs (played at an increasing volume while providing a positive stimulus like petting and treats), is a great place to start for the vast majority of pets. Try to find a CD with sounds recorded in your area for maximum realism.

2-Natural therapies like lavender oil (recently found to reduce car anxiety in dogs), ProQuiet (a tryptophan syrup), and canine pheromone sprays can be helpful for the mildly affected. Dr. Diaz also recommends blankets that work to shield dogs from the electromagnetic changes perceptible during electrical storms (Anxiety Wrap and Storm Defender are two brands available online).

3-Pharmaceutical intervention, the most common approach for severe cases, is also the one most fraught with complications. Usually, this method is reserved for our most anxious and self-destructive patients. Creative combinations of anti-anxiety drugs (like Xanax) with Prozac-like drugs (like Clomicalm) seem to help many of our most serious sufferers. But remember, no drug is a substitute for behavior modification.

Describing the symptoms of thunderstorm phobia to your vet should elicit more than just sympathy. Ask about the above-mentioned therapies and how best to implement them. Remember, addressing the problem earlier generally means less stress, fear and pain later.