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Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs—An Update

Posted: August 18, 2011, 3 p.m., EDT

Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Dipl. ACVB

Phobias are excessive and irrational responses to stimuli that are dysfunctional and disruptive to normal functioning. Thunderstorm phobia is no exception. It is possible that genetic factors underlie a dog’s susceptibility to thunderstorm phobia as herding breeds are over-represented in canine storm phobia demographics.

Certainly genetics contributes to human susceptibility to phobias, as studies show that identical phobias (e.g. fear of heights) develop in identical twins raised completely apart. That said, nurture plays an important role, too, in the sense that negative experiences can clearly trigger the development of phobias. Specifically, direct learning (personal experience) and observational learning (witnessing another fearful dog or person) may be involved and the negative experience so generated is enhanced when paired with (heralded by) a formerly neutral stimulus (e.g. flashing light/lightning).

The clinical expression of thunderstorm phobia involves responses that are physical, emotional and physiological. Physical responses include attempts at escape (flight), finding a safe place, shadowing the owner or hiding. Affected dogs may also pace, pant and whine or bark. Emotional responses include the immeasurable in a dog—the subjective experience of terror.

Physiological responses include activation of the autonomic and endocrine systems with resultant tachycardia, pupillary dilation, salivation, sweating (paws only) and increases in stress hormones. One study showed that storm-phobic dogs exhibited a 207 percent increase in plasma cortisol in response to audio recordings of storms. Interestingly, the presence of other dogs in the house was linked to less pronounced reactivity of the dogs and more rapid recovery of the hormonal response.

Desensitization Doesn’t Work Well

The problem with thunderstorm phobia is that it is a multiple, composite condition. It is not simply the sound of thunder that sparks the condition but also darkening skies, rain, wind and some say perhaps changes in barometric or static electric fields. Even odors may be indirectly involved; for example, oxides of nitrogen or ozone produced by lightning during storms. It is noteworthy that many storm-phobic dogs are not frightened of other loud noises and the reverse is also true. It is also noteworthy that many storm-phobic dogs sense that storms are on the way well before their owners do, presumably picking up some subtle cues that humans are incapable of perceiving. Whether these cues involve changes in barometric pressure, static electric fields, odors or some other prompt has yet to be determined.
While most fear-related behavioral conditions respond well to the gold standard treatment of desensitization, thunderstorm phobia does not. There are several possible explanations for this apparent enigma.

First, the composite nature of storms means that desensitization to the recorded sound of thunder alone is unlikely to be effective. One researcher tried to circumvent this limitation by simultaneously exposing storm-phobic dogs to storm sounds, a strobe flashing light to simulate lightning, and a lawn sprinkler playing on the window to simulate rain.
Second, the first rule of desensitization is to eliminate and/or control exposure to the feared stimulus (storms, in this case). That is tricky to achieve in most geographical locations in the United States.

Thirdly, desensitization must be conducted in each room of the house—dogs do not generalize their new learning to all other domestic locations. These limitations make desensitization tricky, time consuming, and often far less than fully effective. Even newer desensitization products—e.g. a four-pack CD with escalating and eclectic storm sounds to a soothing music background or a bioacoustically engineered storm sounds CD with a pulsing heart beat in the background–are unlikely to prove effective because of the previously stated limitations.

Seeking Safely

When owners of storm-phobic dogs are asked when their dog first became afraid of storms the answer is when they were young—less than 1 or 2 years of age. On the other hand, owners often seek counseling from a behaviorist only when their dogs are considerably older, say between 5 and 9 years old. These same owners claim that while their dogs were always somewhat apprehensive during storms, there was a sudden exacerbation later in life during the course of one particularly severe storm. Some of these owners can even name the day and time that this occurred.

Clearly something unusual happened during that particular storm to make it different from all the rest. I think that something may be—in some dogs at least–receiving a painful static electric shock during that one triggering storm. My reasons for thinking this are many and stem in part from my clinic experiences.

I have noted time and time again that storm-phobic dogs—about 50 percent of them—climb into the sink, bath, Jacuzzi, shower pedestal, or squeeze themselves behind toilet tanks or up against metal radiators or pipes during storms. Presumably they have found by trial and error that there is some degree of protection in these locations. All of these locations represent electrical grounds that would dissipate any built-up static charge.

I have also heard from several owners now that they sometimes get static shocks from their dogs if they touch them during a storm. The facts that A) static fields build up during storms and B) some animals become statically charged during storms is already known. The mast tips of sailing ships of yore used to glow with “St. Anthony’s Fire” during storms; airplane wings glow with static discharge for the same reason when planes fly though electric storms; and the horns of Texas longhorn cattle can glimmer at the tips like candles during thunderstorms, often heralding a stampede.

What Do We Do?

So with all these facts and suppositions in hand, how should we treat thunderstorm phobia? Well, the first and most obvious thing to do is to try to prevent affected dogs from being exposed to what it is they clearly do not like and even dread.

My advice is always to find a safe place where the dog can go to get away from all aspects of the storm. A basement, if available, is a great place to start. The safe place should preferably have small or no windows so the storm cannot be witnessed by the dog. Even small windows should be blocked off using cardboard inserts or fitted with thick, lined curtains. Basements have the advantage of being semi-subterranean, insulated against sound by think concrete walls and surrounding soil.

Other rooms can be fitted with sound-proofing wallboard. The safe room is equipped with a solid sided crate (door open), water, food, toys and treats. The lights are turned up to mask any stray lightning flashes that might escape the window shielding and classical music is played at a reasonable volume to drown out any remote sounds of thunder.

The dog must be brought to the safe place at first and may enjoy some upbeat interaction with his owner but later may take himself to the safe place on his own on first perception of an impending storm. A doggy door may have to be fitted to make the room accessible at all times, even in the owner’s absence.

Next, one of the many storm jackets may be fitted to the dog during a storm to make the dog feel more comfortable. The Storm Defender has an anti-static lining and the new model is tight fitting, too, delivering a sort of ambulatory hug. We have shown that this jacket is effective in many storm phobic dogs and some will even direct their owners to the jacket at the first sign of a storm! The Anxiety Wrap is another therapeutic jacket that works by swaddling pressure alone. We have shown that approximately 50 percent of storm phobic dogs respond positively to this jacket. Another storm jacket we have not yet tested, the Thundershirt, gets good reviews and works on the same principle as the Anxiety Wrap. Finally, a Calming Cap may be helpful in some cases to attenuate visual aspects of storms.

Of course, if all else fails, medication can save the day. Reconcile (Fluoxetine) is my first choice as a “background medication” to stabilize storm-phobic dogs’ mood during the thunderstorm season. Sometimes adjunctive treatment with a situational drug is also helpful, especially during particularly violent storms. Although I have often used Xanax (alprazolam) for this purpose I am somewhat put off by what seems an unacceptable high level of paradoxical excitement reactions to this anxiolytic drug.

Klonopin (clonazepam) does not seem much better in this respect. Accordingly, my favorite situational drug of the moment is clonidine, an alpha-2 agonist (like xylazine), administered at low, non-sedating doses. With or without medication, thunderstorm phobia, which used to be one of the more refractory behavior problems, is now more often manageable. With a half a modicum of luck, formerly storm phobic dogs will now not only be experiencing the calm before the storm but will remain calm throughout it, too. 

An author and researcher, Dr. Dodman is a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and is founder and director of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.

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