Definition and Causes of Canine Thunderstorm Phobia
Fear is a natural, normal feeling of apprehension associated with the presence of a sight, sound, situation or other stimulus that is perceived to be threatening or scary. Many fearful reactions are learned and can be unlearned over time with patience, socialization and desensitization exercises. Fear tends to develop gradually and can vary widely in intensity or degree. A phobia is quite different. Phobias are exaggerated, profound fearful reactions that develop quickly and usually don’t diminish with repeated exposure to the inciting stimulus. They frequently get worse over time. There are physical, behavioral and psychological components to phobias in dogs. A dog suffering from a phobia typically has a sudden, all-or-nothing, persistent, extreme and abnormal response to a stimulus that results in intense anxiety, profound panic and deep distress. Many phobic reactions in dogs are associated with loud noises, such as those caused by gun shots and fireworks. The wind, rain, thunder, lightning, static electricity and barometric pressure changes that accompany large storms are especially frightening to many dogs. Dogs of all breeds, mixed breeds and ages and both genders, whether neutered, spayed or intact, can develop storm phobias. One study reportedly found thunderstorm phobias to be more prevalent in herding breeds. There may be a hereditary component to phobias, although this has not been well-documented. Other contributing factors can include insufficient early socialization and lack of exposure to a wide range of sights, sounds and situations starting at a young age.
Symptoms and Signs of Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs – What the Owner Sees
Owners of dogs that have thunderstorm phobias rarely are mistaken about the cause of their dog’s behavior. In many cases, dogs show signs of panic even before the full force of a storm has arrived, because of their keen sense of hearing and ability to sense pressure changes. Sometimes, puppies develop thunderstorm phobias, although it is equally common for this condition to show up in adults. Owners of affected dogs typically notice a number of the following symptoms:
- Excessive salivation (ptyalism; drooling; “foaming at the mouth”)
- Pacing, agitation (often relentless and profound)
- Elevated heart rate (tachycardia)
- Rapid breathing (tachypnea)
- Loss of appetite (inappetence; anorexia)
- Attempts to escape confinement (may lead to self-trauma)
- Withdrawal, depression, passivity
- Cowering, crouching, low body posture
- Shaking, quivering, trembling
- Tucked tail
- Lowered head
- Lowered ears
- Hair standing on end (piloerection), especially along the back and top of the neck
- Barking, whining, abnormal vocalization (often relentless)
- Yawning (repeatedly)
- Aggression (uncommon but occasionally occurs)
- Inappropriate elimination (urinating or defecating in the house or other inappropriate places)
Diagnosing Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs
Thunderstorm phobias are usually diagnosed based on the dog’s history and behavior during a loud or violent storm. It is helpful for the veterinarian to examine the dog while a storm is going on, so that he can get an accurate and complete picture of the dog’s reaction and symptoms. Affected animals often have an elevated heart rate and rapid breathing, which can be detected during the physical examination if it is conducted during a storm. Once a dog develops this level of extreme anxiety in connection with storms, it probably will continue to panic from storms in the future.
Treatment and Prognosis
Thunderstorm phobias are difficult to treat successfully. Crate confinement should be avoided during storms if the dog is highly agitated and could injure itself trying to escape. Affected dogs should not be punished for their panicked behavior. Many authorities recommend against comforting phobic dogs during storms, because this may be perceived as positive reinforcement for their abnormal reaction. Behavioral experts suggest that owners of dogs with storm phobias try to desensitize and counter-condition them to the sights and sounds of thunder, lightning and wind. This can be done by using recordings of storms, which are commercially available. The recordings should initially be played at a very low volume – so low that it doesn’t elicit a fearful response from the dog. The volume and duration of the recording should then gradually be increased, as long as the animal remains relaxed. Improper, overly long or loud use of storm recordings can scare the dog and enhance rather than diminish its phobia. The dog can be put on a sit-stay or down-stay or be taught to do other behaviors or tricks when a storm happens, which can help take its mind off of the weather system brewing outside. Tasty treats can also be helpful, if a dog is food-motivated.
Some medications have been used to manage thunderstorm phobias, including azapirones, tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and phenothiazine tranquilizers. These drugs can have a variety of adverse side effects, such as appetite loss, irritability, sedation, gastrointestinal disturbances, heart arrhythmias and/or disinhibition of aggressive tendencies. They must be given daily for 2 to 4 weeks before they even begin to become effective in controlling a dog’s anxiety. Other drugs, in a class called benzodiazepines, are fast-acting and useful for sudden, short-term anxiety management.
Unfortunately, in many cases, dogs with thunderstorm phobias are so distraught that there is little that their owners can do to relieve their profound panic. The best course is to prevent the phobia from developing in the first place. This can be accomplished through early and ongoing exposure to a wide variety of sights, sounds and other potentially scary stimuli. Mild to moderate anxiety during violent storms can be a normal fearful response and is not considered to be a phobia.