Storm phobias are frustrating to pet owners and veterinarians alike. Phobias develop from fears and are exaggerated irrational responses to harmful stimuli, regardless of if it has actually caused harm to the pet. For example- it is good to fear snakes, but it is not good to be phobic of them. The stimuli that trigger panic associated with storms are often harmless. Triggers for storm phobias can be as simple as a change in barometric pressure, gusts of leaves being blowing around, or small rain showers. While the phobia cannot be completely eliminated, the severity of the disorder can be reduced in many cases.
About 90% of dogs with storm phobias also have noise phobias, however only 75% of dogs with noise phobias have storm phobias. It is ideal to avoid the trigger for these anxious behaviors whenever possible. Looking ahead at weather reports can provide some degree of predictability, as well as being aware of the chances for fireworks (New Years Eve, 4th of July, etc). Some boarding facilities have specialized soundproof amenities that may be available if planning far in advance. Some people are able to soundproof their homes or make the home environment less stressful with different accessories. On the market today there are ear covers for dogs, sound muting kennel covers, and eye covers. Room darkening shades are sometimes helpful if the pet is responsive to visual stimulus associated with storms.
In the instance that a storm occurs with little warning to the owner and the dog’s anxiety has already started to show, it is best to allow them access to the place of their choosing (if possible). Many dogs will have an area that they prefer and feel safest when nervous or fearful.
Some owners worry that soothing or trying to comfort their pet will “reward” the fearful behavior. This is not the case. It is not possible to make fear worse by adding something to the experience that allows the dog to cope better. Comforting the dog can be in the form of petting, body contact, talking calmly, or many other strategies.
Desensitization: Exposing the dog to a noxious stimulus at a low intensity so as not to produce the full phobic response. Over time, as the dog starts to show an ability to cope, the intensity of the stimulus should be increased. Desensitization may work best if the dog only has sensitivity to the sound of thunder by using a CD recording of thunderstorms. Unfortunately, most dogs have multiple triggers as stated above.
Counter-conditioning: This method brings out a response that is both physiologically and behaviorally incompatible with the phobia. For instance, playing with the dogs, or feeding them treats while they are subjected to a low level of the stimulus should allow for them to eventually associate the noise with a positive activity.
Relaxation training: Training the pet to settle and relax in its own comfort area (i.e. their bed) should be a focus of reward based training prior to desensitization exercises in order to ensure that the pet can first be calmed and settled when there is no fear invoking stimulus. Owners are encouraged to perform these activities several times a day so as to provide a safe and secure environment where the pet has a sense of control.
*It is best to begin training during times of the year when exposure to the fear evoking stimuli can be avoided – not thunderstorm season.
Oral medication is unlikely to make a lot of difference to the dog’s anxiety levels once it is significantly distressed. However a low dose of a medication may still be warranted if no other behavior modification exercise is helpful.
Debbie J. Calnon, BVMS, MACVSc (Behavior)
Gary M. Landsberg, DVM, ACVB, ECAWBM