Friday, October 4, 2013

Cue Lightening, Thunder, and Anxiety

Last night we had a whopper of a thunderstorm. The weather radio was blaring, the lightening was crashing, and the thunder was most definitely booming. It was loud and incredible! Unfortunately, Bourbon didn't quite agree with us. None of the other dogs even cracked open an eye during the storm but Bourbon whined to join us in bed and was restless through the entire storm. Poor old dude.

Mom, make it stop!!!
We are lucky so far that his behavior is not worse - he just whines and wants to be with us. His anxiety started last year, we are not sure why, but a lot of times thunderstorm phobia will appear out of nowhere. And sadly, it usually gets worse over time - so it's important to take action when you first notice the signs. You shouldn't wait to address the phobia until it is very severe as it will be that much harder to ease or try to reverse.

Is There Treatment?

The standard therapy for fears is counterconditioning and desensitization. You start desensitization and counterconditioning by exposing your dog to the frightening stimulus in its mildest possible form and pairing it with a super-special treat. So the dog learns that a mild form of the scary thing predicts the super-special treat and hopefully starts acting pleased to see the scary thing. Then you gradually increase the scary thing's intensity bit by bit.

Unfortunately, that is hard to do with thunderstorms. The process largely depends on avoiding random exposures to the scary thing (I'm not sure anyone I know has the skills to control thunderstorms?!?). Also, thunderstorms are so multifaceted (clouds, humidity, changes in barometric pressure, wind, rain, lightening, thunder, etc.) that we can't replicate them in order to provide repeated systematic exposure. So what do you do?

Mildly Anxious

If your dog is only mildly anxious (maybe a little restless, some whining, etc. - this is where Bourbon is), there are a few things you can do to indirectly comfort your dog.

Safe Spot

Many dogs seek out small, out-of-the-way places on their own, but you can also provide a comfortable hiding place in a quiet part of your house if needed. Make sure your dog has access to their safe spot at all times since a storm might easily come while you are not home. A crate with a soft bed inside and covered with a sheet might make your dog feel safer, but use this option cautiously. Make sure to leave the door open so your dog can go in and out on its own. In general, being confined in a crate with the door closed leads to heightened anxiety and an attempt to break out, so make sure to determine your dog's comfort levels with crating.

Anxiety-Reducing Attire

A significant amount of evidence shows that anxious dogs may get comfort from the sensation of being 'bundled,' much like a baby in a blanket. There are several products on the market:
  • Anxiety Wrap - This was the first of these types of products. It was developed in 2001 by Susan Sharpe APDT, CPDT. It is made of lightweight, stretchy fabric that fits snugly around the dog's torso and targets various acupressure points on the dog's body.
  • Thundershirt - This was developed in 2009 and uses the same basic concept as the Anxiety Wrap, but is made of a heavier fabric.
  • Calming Cap - This is a soft fabric cap that covers the dog's eyes but is not a blindfold. The dog can still see through the cap but visual stimuli are very reduced.
  • Storm Defender Cape - This product was developed by a frustrated dog owner with a background in psychology and electrical engineering. It operates on the theory that thunderstorm phobia is largely related to the uncomfortable static buildup that accompanies a storm, so it has a special metallic lining that discharges a dog's fur and shields them from ongoing static charge buildup.
Again, every dog is an individual and will show different results. Some owners report quite dramatic improvement; others see no real change.

Modify the Environment

While you can't change the fact that it's storming, you can modify things inside the house to try to help minimize the effects of what is happening outside:
  • Close curtains or blinds to reduce the visual impact
  • Turn on the lights (if the storm is occurring at night)
  • Turn on the TV or radio as a distraction or sound muffler
  • Play music that is specifically designed to reduce anxiety in dogs (Through a Dog's Ear, Pet Pause, and Pet Acoustics)
  • Provide white noise to mask the sounds of the storm
  • Have a pheromone diffuser plugged in at all times (Dog Appeasing Pheromone or Comfort Zone)
Again, each of these things will have varying results and you'll have to figure out the best combination for your dog.

Natural Supplements or Remedies

There is an ever-growing number of herbal, homeopathic, and holistic products all geared toward inducing a sense of calm and relaxation for your pet. Please remember to discuss anything you'd like to give your dog with your veterinarian to be sure it is not contraindicated with anything else. This is just a partial list:

Play Therapy

If your dog has a game that they love, you can try to engage them in an appropriate indoor version of that game. The minute you're aware that a storm is coming, bring out the ball or the tug toy or whatever the game entails. If you throw a play party whenever there's a storm, your dog may learn that storms predict good times (a version of counterconditioning and desensitization). Sometimes the play distraction is just what they need to forget about the storm and replace it with something positive.

Severely Anxious

Dogs with severe thunderstorm phobia will need the help of a professional. In most cases, prescription medication is very successful in conjunction with desensitization and counterconditioning. Though many owners shy away from these types of medications, the benefits outweigh the means in serious cases. There are several medications currently used for thunderstorm phobia, your vet may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication like Xanax (alprazolam) or Valium (diazepam) that can be given at the first sign of a storm, or may dispense a medication that has to be given on a daily basis to maintain a certain level of effectiveness.

While a veterinarian must prescribe medication for your dog, keep in mind that your vet may or may not have a lot of experience dealing with canine behavior problems and anti-anxiety medications. Please do not let them prescribe acepromazine. And should you need the help of a professional, please also consider working with a qualified trainer or behavior counselor, who can help guide you in conjunction with a vet.

While you are giving your dog anti-anxiety meds you want to make sure that you do many of the available things mentioned above as well. Draw the curtains, play soft music, let the dog hide in the bathroom, whatever else helps, please continue to do that. The overall treatment plan (medication and environment modification) will of course depend on the dog.

Extra Resources

Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs - from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT)
Storm Phobias - Dr. Karen Overall
Fear of Thunderstorms, Fireworks, and Noise Phobias - Drs. Foster and Smith Pet Education series
Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs - Dr. Nicholas Dodman
Coping with Thunderstorm Phobia - Victoria Stillwell


  1. GREAT INFO. My first dog, Pepper, had horrible storm anxiety. I was naïve and comforted her when it came on, so I inadvertently made it worse. Later on we would try to ignore it and just carry on like the noise outside was no big deal. She didn't buy it. We also tried turning up the TV. The only thing that (sorta) worked was Benadryl. Living in Florida, we can count on the storms coming between 4-6 every day in July & August, so we were able to spike her lunch in preparation. I wish I had known then what I know now.

    1. I know, I'm glad I have found this information before I have ever really needed it. I'm just glad Bourbon's isn't worse (and crossing fingers it doesn't progress much!).

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