Many of us are fascinated by thunderstorms. There is something inherently intriguing about watching the cascading sheets of rain, listening to the deep rumbles of thunder, and waiting for the intermittent explosions of lightning all from the safety of your home. Unfortunately, what we find fascinating our dogs find utterly terrifying.
While thunderstorm phobia affects both puppies and adult dogs, it commonly develops later in a dog’s life. Dogs with no prior history of sound phobias may suddenly start pacing, panting, trembling, or hiding as a storm approaches.
There is some debate among veterinarians as to what exactly causes dogs to fear thunderstorms. Some veterinarians believe that this fear is just another form of noise phobia. Others argue that there is something unique about about this fear of thunderstorms, and that it is not simply triggered loud noises alone.
These veterinarians believe that storm-related increases in static electricity can generate painful shocks - especially in larger, heavy-coated breeds of dogs. During a thunderstorm dogs experience physical pain. With time, they learn to associate the loud noises of a storm with that physical pain and, eventually, their fear may be triggered by noise alone.
While short of moving to a different location you can’t eliminate storms, you can take action to help your dog to cope with his fear. Try out the following strategies to comfort your dog when the next storm approaches.
Allow your dog to retreat to whatever area of your home he finds most comforting. Interior rooms or basements that provide an escape from the sounds of sights of a thunderstorm often work well. Bathtubs and showers may also provide electrical grounding and help to protect your dog from storm-related shocks.
You may be able to desensitize your dog to some of the sounds of a thunderstorm by playing a recording of these sounds at a low volume during non-storm times. Begin by playing these sounds at low enough levels so that they do not frighten your dog. Then, over time, gradually increase the volume while also playing with, and praising, your dog.
Over time, your dog will learn to associate these sounds with playtime and praise. This may help to reduce your dog’s fear of loud noises; however, it won’t reduce any fear associated with the physical effects of storms.
Two rather unique garments - the Thundershirt and the Storm Defender - were purposefully designed to calm your dog during a storm. The Thundershirt is a vest that provides constant, gentle pressure to your dog’s torso. This pressure mimics the sensation of being cuddled and comforted and may help to reduce anxiety. The Storm Defender is a vest with a special metallic lining that helps to shield your dog from static charge buildup and reduce painful electric shocks.
In the case of extreme anxiety that persists despite your best efforts to calm your dog, your vet may be able to prescribe an anti-anxiety medication. A combination of calming strategies and anti-anxiety medication has been shown to reduce fear in even severe cases of thunderstorm phobia.