by Liane Ehrich, Guest Contributor from VAILAZ.COM
Summer storms can be quite spectacular. The heat and humidity build high towering clouds that can produce massive clouds producing hail, strong winds, thunder, tornadoes, lightning and power outages. For many dogs, the storm season also brings a slew of symptoms grouped under the heading of thunderstorm phobia. Thunderstorm phobia is any behavior change exhibited by a dog during stormy weather. These changes can be subtle, and include restless pacing, hiding, and whining. More extreme behavioral changes include hysteria, digging at doors, and trying to jump through doorways and windows.
Phobia is defined as an irrational fear. Irrational fear means that the danger of real harm is small, and the fear is disproportionately high. Phobias are also correlated with anticipatory fear. This is why dogs will become anxious at the threat of a storm. Some dogs sense oncoming storms before their owners. Storm phobias do not get better with time; in fact, if left untreated, they will become worse. Just like people, dogs rarely grow out of phobias, they grow into them. Storm phobias, especially if their symptoms are mild, can be and often are ignored. However, if you observe any changes in your dog’s behavior during a thunderstorm, you need to consider the probability that your dog suffers from storm phobia.
Remember, a phobia feels no less real to the animal suffering it than does a legitimate fear. You may know that statistically planes are safer than cars, but that still doesn’t mean you will forego a double scotch the second you board a plane. Unlike flying, your dog cannot avoid being subjected to seasonal thunderstorms; so, how do you order your dog a double scotch?
Getting your dog drunk is probably not the solution. There are things that you can do right now to help your dog. Interestingly, petting them and saying ‘it’s only a storm’ is not one of them, even if it makes you feel better. A simple solution that is successful with some dogs is creating a ‘safe room’ where they cannot see the lightning that triggers the thunder, or the thunder that follows. Setting up a radio helps create ambient noise. Many dogs will head to their room at the first sign of a scary storm.
Other dogs respond positively to anxiety wraps and thundershirts. These shirts and wraps are like swaddling clothes in infants and for many dogs, they have a calming effect. To work properly, these devices must be fairly tight. Some dogs are extremely storm phobic and their actions can endanger themselves and others. Dogs have been known to jump through sliding glass doors, eat through drywall, and sprint through open doors. These dogs may need additional help to address their fear after it has progressed to this point.
Your veterinarian, as always, is your dog’s best friend in solving the problem of storm phobia. Some veterinarians are very interested in behavioral problems, while others know essentially nothing about them. If your veterinarian offers you a bottle of pills for this issue and nothing more, then you need to find another veterinarian for this problem.
Storm phobia is a complex problem. Many dogs who are storm phobic also have other undiagnosed phobias. A skilled veterinary professional can walk you through what to expect and how to help your dog. Though thunderstorm phobia is widespread in dogs, there is some evidence that it has a higher incidence in the herding breeds as well as some of the hounds. The incidence of storm phobias seems to also occur more often in dogs that come through rescue organizations, perhaps due to prior instability in their lives, though no one knows for certain. With the right tools and information, you can help mitigate much of your pet’s fear and help your dog cope with the worst that the summer storm season brings.