Thunderstorm phobia or anxiety is a fairly common and very real problem for many dogs. These dogs can become extremely frantic and overwhelmed with fear during storms. Very often they escape and run away from home – putting them at risk of being hit by a car or getting lost.
Are there any links between storm phobias and other behavioural disorders?
There is a neurobiological link between the presence of storm phobic behaviour and other behavioural problems- the most common of these is separation related distress. However, this is not always the case and sometimes storm phobia will occur independently of other behavioural disorders.
What causes this behavioural problem?
There are probably multiple reasons for thunderstorm phobia, and the reasons vary from dog to dog. The most obvious reason is due to the loud noise of the thunder. Many dogs suffer from noise phobia, and thunder is just one of several frightening noises (others include fireworks, gunshots, etc).
However, the cause of fear may not be limited to noise. Changes in barometric pressure and humidity can affect your dog’s senses and possibly even cause discomfort in the ears.
Arthritic dogs or those with orthopaedic disorders may experience more pain than usual.
Another possible reason for thunderstorm phobia is association with a traumatic experience. You may not know what happened, but it is possible that something very stressful or frightening occurred in your dog’s past during a thunderstorm.
Finally, genetic make-up may be a contributing factor to fear of thunderstorms, or even the sole cause.
Whatever the underlying trigger, there is no doubt that these dogs are a genuine welfare concern. They are truly terrified.
What is also well understood, by medical science, is that this fear does not get better over time. In fact, left untreated it will get significantly worse.
How do I know if my dog has a storm phobia?
If your dog seems anxious, hyperactive, destructive or reclusive during storms, you are probably dealing with thunderstorm phobia. Many dogs will pace, pant, or quietly whine. Some are clingy and seek attention. Other dogs will hide, frozen with fear. Your dog’s fearful behaviour may be subtle at first but can become worse with time, eventually becoming full-blown panic attacks that are very dangerous for your dog. It is not uncommon for dogs with thunderstorm phobia to urinate and/or defecate inappropriately. Tell-tale signs of anxiety and fear can begin long before the storm arrives.
Prognosis for favourable treatment is better the earlier treatment is instigated.
How do I manage my dog during a storm?
These dogs should be treated like any other dog with a mental health disorder, for that is exactly what they have. This requires the assistance of your vet; ideally a veterinary behaviourist who specialises in mental health disorders in pets.
Treatment relies on a multi-pronged approach – management, medication, and behavioural modification.
DO NOT rely on electronic shock collars as containment devices for these dogs. They are inhumane. These dogs will very often override the pain and fear of the collar when they are in panic mode and escape regardless.
Every treatment plan is different, depending on the dog and the environment in which it lives.
Because thunderstorm phobia is likely to become worse over time, it is important to take action when you first notice the signs. Do not wait to address the phobia until it is very severe—it will be that much harder to reverse.
Just as stress is a health risk for humans, the same applies for dogs. Thunderstorm phobia can become a very serious problem that will adversely affect your dog’s health and quality of life.
For more information please contact your local veterinarian or Dr Emma at BBVS.
Written by Dr Emma Hughes BSc; BVSc; MSc (Animal Behaviour); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour).