Storm Phobia

May 29th 2019

Kris Snider, RVT

(Registered Veterinary Technician at Hillcrest Veterinary Clinic and Associate Trainer for The Clever Canine)

Storm phobia in our canine companions is a real occurrence. With the increased amount of storms in the area, I felt that it was a good time to put together a piece for our clients to understand the phobia, as well as some insight on ways to manage it.

Storm phobia is a panic disorder that is commonly seen in adult dogs, lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to days after. Most of the time there is anticipation before the humans are even aware of an impending storm. It is believed that the stimuli that induce the fear include rain, lightning, thunder, strong winds, changes in barometric pressures, and static electricity.

Why some dogs react to storms and others do not is not completely understood at this time. Some contributing factors can be lack of exposure to storms early in development, unintentional reinforcement of fear response by owner, and a genetic predisposition for emotional reactivity.

Any dog that panics during a storm is suffering profoundly and undergoing neurocytotoxic damage. Unfortunately it is perceived that the dog who freezes and withdrawals from the situation is thought to be less affected by storms and noises than those who escape through windows or destroy property to get away. Both types of dogs are anxious, they are displaying their anxiety in different ways.

 Symptoms:

 If storm phobia is a concern, common signs are:

  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Trembling
  • Hiding/Remaining near the owner
  • Excessive salivation
  • Destructiveness
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Self-inflicted trauma
  • Fecal incontinence

Health Concerns:

Not only are these phobias causing stress to the owners, they can affect the dogs own health. Body systems that are affected by storm phobia are:

  • Cardiovascular: Increased heart rate
  • Endocrine/Metobolic: increased cortisol levels, stress induced hyperglycemia (increased glucose levels)
  • Gastrointestinal: Inappetence , gastrointestinal upset
  • Musculoskeletal: Self-induced trauma
  • Nervous System: Adrenergic/nor-adrenergic overstimulation
  • Respiratory: Abnormal rapid breathing
  • Skin: Excessive licking

Treatment:

 A Safe Space

Creating a safe place that your dog is able to go when storms arrive is a non-medical way to help relieve the anxiety associated with the storm. A safe place is defined by the dog’s preference and is not uncommon to be closets, basements, bathrooms, or their crate. Sometimes playing classical music or using a white noise machine can help drown out some of the outside noises. Make these areas accessible if they are a known safe place.

Many owners make the mistake of petting their dog or using words like “ok” to soothe their pet during a storm. Unfortunately, these things that we feel will help, can make things worse. Petting in general is a form of reward to our dogs, so when people pet fearful dogs, they are inadvertently rewarding the anxious behavior. Even more, some dogs will utilize that as another stimuli to an already anxiety filled environment. Same goes for using the word “ok” in the event of anxiety. In general the dog has learned that the work “ok” means that the behavior is encouraged and rewarded. But when used in the presence of storm phobia, it can leave the dog confused and unsure of what is expected.

By watching your dog and learning what human behaviors calm them, if any, can help you to provide those human behaviors in the presence of storms. You can allow your dog to be alone in a place that is quiet and calm (as long as there is not risk for injury), or you can stay quietly by the dog. Quiet association can provide solace and security without accidentally rewarding the dog. Rather than petting your dog, you can apply gentle continuous pressure, either with your arm or whole body, on the dog. This type of pressure works with most mammals to calm general arousal. If permitted by the dog, the owner can lean on or against the dog, if it is helping, the owner will feel the dog exhale and the muscles relax. If the dog becomes frantic or gets worse with the pressure, stop, it is not helping them.

Behavior Modification

  • Neither punish or attempt to comfort the dog during the storms
  • Desensitization and counter-conditioning are often used in combination
  • Desensitization involves exposure to a recorded stimulus at a volume that does not elicit fear. The volume is gradually increased only if the dog remains relaxed.
  • Counter-conditioning involves teaching a response (sit, relax) that is incompatible with the fear response. Food rewards are often used to facilitate learning.
  • Audio recordings of storms are commercially available. Other than the storm sounds, it is difficult to reproduce the natural stimuli that occur during storms.

Tools

Not every dog will be accepting of these anti-anxiety aids. And there is no proven research that supports that the aids are helpful.

  • Body wraps
  • Storm Defender Cape (Decrease Static Electricity)
  • Thundershirts
  • Caps
  • Doggles
  • Headphones/Earplugs

Supplements

There are several medications that can be tried. They are not recommended to be the primary treatment of thunderstorm phobia. It is advised to consult with your veterinarian to decide on an appropriate supplement.

  • Solliquin
  • Composure
  • Zylkene
  • Pheromone Collars/Diffusers

Medication

The most common and humane treatment for noise phobia involve medications designed to reduce or terminate anxiety and panic. It is advised to consult with your veterinarian to decide which medication is appropriate for your dog’s case. If medication is given, Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Biochemistry Profiles should be done on your dog periodically. Medications commonly used are below.

  • Sileo
  • Trazodone
  • Alprazolam
  • Valium

Overview:

 Storm phobia is a real thing and affects many of our canine companions. There are multiple ways to go about dealing with storm phobia and each case is unique. Some cases might only require minor adjustments to alleviate the anxiety, where other cases will need veterinary consultation, behavior management, and medication. If storm phobia is left untreated, it will continue to get worse.

 

References:

  1. Overall KL, Dunham AE, Dyer DJ, et al. Phenotypic determination of noise reactivity in three breeds of herding dogs: implications for identifying genomic regions of interest, in Proceedings. 7th Int Vet Behav Mtg. ESCVE, Belgium 2009:96-100.
  2. Overall KL, Juarbe-Diaz SV, Dunham AE, et al. Phenotypic determination of noise reactivity in 3 breeds of working dogs: roles for age, breed and careful assessment (abstr). J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res2010;6(1):in press.
  3. Yokoyama JS, Chang ML, Tiira KA, et al. Genome-wide association study of the canine anxiety phenotype noise phobia. J Heredity, submitted.
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  11. James, Katie, et al. “Calm skies ahead: Helping pets with thunderstorm phobias” dvm360, FIRSTLINE, 4/18/2017, http://veterinaryteam.dvm360.com/calm-skies-ahead-helping-pets-with-thunderstorm-phobias