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Thunderstorm Mayhem

Author: Christine Calvert, DVM

It's summer time and you know what that means, thunderstorms!  The flash of lightning and the boom of thunder, combined with the loud winds  are enough to send anyone, man or pet into hiding. Storm phobias are common behavior conditions that cause significant suffering for pets and the families who love them Without appropriate treatment, it can worsen with time, severely impacting your pet’s quality of life.

While some dogs will be triggered only as the thunder starts and recover as soon as it ends, many will experience suffering that expands outside of the weather event. Especially upon repeated exposure, certain pets will begin to experience the symptoms of thunderstorm phobia earlier and may also take longer to recover after the storm. Occasionally, a pet may hide for instance, under the bed and not want to come out for several days.

Common triggers of this phobia include thunder, lightning, rain, wind, as well as changes in barometric pressure. However, many dogs will also learn to associate flashing lights (not associated with storms), darkening skies/clouds, owner pre-storm routines, non-thunder noises (sirens, garage doors opening or closing, fluttering flags, etc.) with the possibility of an oncoming storm. These patients are exhibiting full blown anxiety disorders triggered by storms.

Signs of phobia can include: pacing, panting, trembling/shaking, hiding or not wanting to move,  and destruction often focused on “escape” such as going through windows, biting door frames, scratching at barriers used for confinement, etc.  Many pets with thunderstorm phobia will crawl on their owners and seem to be soliciting petting or holding, but are often not able to be comforted by their owners. Traumatic injuries, such as broken claws and teeth, cuts on face and feet especially during escape or destructive behaviors are common. In some cases, the only symptoms noted are hiding and withdrawal so sometimes the phobia can go undetected and it’s severity under-estimated. Having a video available of your pet’s behavior for your veterinarian to review is helpful.

Separation anxiety, noise phobia, and thunderstorm phobia frequently occur together. In addition, many dogs with thunderstorm phobia have other fears, phobias, impulse control disorders, and/or anxieties. When the thunderstorm phobia is triggered it can worsen other behavioral disorders, causing the patient to be in distress.

A multi-faceted approach to treatment of this condition is preferred. Proactive behavior modification for teaching your pet new coping strategies and relaxation techniques, coupled with anti-anxiety supplements, medications, or pheromones are often used together to promote remission of this anxiety and panic disorder.  Improving any anxiety or phobia begins with resolving deficiencies in basic health and maintenance such as proper diet and adequate amounts of daily exercise. Providing “puppy play dates” with dogs and/or people combined with daily reward based training is essential.

Once there is a plan in place for these basic needs, we need to ensure your pet feels safe.   Your dog tells you what feels “safe” for him/her by his behavior.  Is he willing to eat, play, and interact in his usual way with the environment and his family? If so, he is likely feeling safe.  Be sure to provide a safe spot chosen by your pet. Ideally, a safe zone (AKA storm bunker) is a windowless room or a room with curtains/blinds on the inside of the home or in the basement when possible. Many dogs choose closets, bathrooms, or crates for their storm bunkers when given the freedom to choose. Classical music or white noise can help drown out some outside noises.

All dogs with thunderstorm phobia deserve to have their suffering relieved through the pro-active use of medications. For pets who only react to thunderstorms or fireworks we can prescribe "situational" medications that can be given around the time of the event or when an event is predicted to occur. For pets who are showing anxiety outside of specific weather events, daily medications should be considered.

Behavior modification should be incorporated into your pet’s routine at least 5 minutes per day (ONLY on non-storm days). It includes desensitizing your pet to the sounds of a storm and relaxation techniques that include the storm bunker. Playing a recording of thunder can help minimize your pet’s reaction to these sounds. In addition, relaxation and massaging can improve the patient’s initial anxiety levels and increase his/her ability to tolerate situations in the long term.

Specific anti-anxiety tools such as body wraps (thunder shirts),caps, goggles, head phones, are available to help prevent  intensity or the pet’s reaction.

In addition to traditional anti-anxiety medications, pheromone therapy such as Adaptil plug-ins and collars may be supportive in some patients. A variety of anti-anxiety supplements like Solliquin from Nutramaxx can also be tried, but these should not be considered cornerstones of treatment for thunderstorm phobia. There is also a new medication specifically designed to treat noise phobias including thunderstorm and fireworks phobias. This is applied as a gel to the pet’s gums to provide relief from anxiety and calming effects. 
Symptoms of thunderstorm phobia can be significantly improved in most pets when treatment is immediate, proactive, and multi-factorial.  Furthermore, improvements can carry over into future thunderstorm seasons with certain protocols.  Talk to your veterinarian if you think your pet may be suffering from thunderstorm phobia so you and your pet can get back to enjoying summertime.


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