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A dog who is terrified of storms can be a dog owner's worst nightmare. 

Any time a storm is around the corner, tension builds in the air, and once the thundering and lightening starts, the dog is in a panic-like state.

Nothing seems to help once the dog reaches that point.

 You may have tried petting, you may have tried talking, you may have tried even some supplements in hopes of helping, but you may have had poor results.

Let's take a look at how storm phobias affect dogs and how they are professionally treated. 

The Impact of Fear 

Noise phobias in dogs are a common behavioral problem with up to 49 percent of dogs being impacted. 

Fear is supposedly an adaptive reaction that helps grant a dog's survival, although domesticated dogs sharing their lives in our homes are more protected from many dangers compared to their wild counterparts.

When a dog experiences fear, a cascading chain of events take place, courtesy of the release of several hormones and neurotransmitters. 

More precisely, when a dog is exposed to a scary noise such as a rumble of thunder, we see an arousal effect of the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) pathways. 

 Catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) trigger the release of energy along with increases in heart rate and blood pressure, typical of the flight and fight reaction.

An Inability to Adapt 

In general, exposure to regular, predictable and low intensity noises should eventually lead to habituation. 

 Habituation simply means getting used to the noise without reacting/startling as it can happen to us humans after moving into a home near a train station or airport.

However, dogs struggle in particular adapting to thunder storm sounds due to the fact that they are unpredictable, intermittent and often of too high intensity. 

This leads to disproportionate reactions from the dog's sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) pathways.

Since thunderstorms don't pose any major real threat to the dog, and fail to lead to habituation, it can be said that the disproportionate fear reaction is maladaptive and can be categorized as a "phobia." 

After exposure, affected dogs may even struggle to return to a baseline calm, suffering from prolonged effects sometimes lasting even weeks after the exposure.

Aversive methods generate fear

Many dogs start feeling stressed at the mere sight of a darkened sky. 

Signs of Storm-Phobias in Dogs 

Through repeated exposures to storms, dogs may come to learn to chain one event with another, to the point of starting to feel anxiety the moment rain clouds hover by and there are changes in barometric pressure. 

Following are several signs of storm-phobias in dogs: 

  • Ears plastered back. Discover more about why dogs hold their ears back. 
  • Panting
  • Lip licking
  • Flicking tongue
  • Yawning
  • Lowered tail
  • Dilated pupils
  • Drooling
  • Pacing
  • Seeking an escape
  • Seeking attention
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Self harming
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Ways to Help a Dog Who is Terrified of Storms 

A multi-modal approach is often needed to treat storm-phobias in dogs. Environmental management along with behavior modifications are traditional treatments. Certain cases may require medications.

 Following are several ways impacted dogs may be helped. 

Create a Safe Haven

 A bathroom or closet or any sound-protected area can turn helpful. Make it your dog's sanctuary with toys, food puzzles, durable dog chews and a comfy bed.

Let your dog use this area before there are any storms to create positive associations with it by giving your dog a food puzzle stuffed with high-value food. 

You want your dog to seek this place.

Buffer the Sounds

In order to help your dog during a storm, you need to find ways to buffer the sound. 

You can try running a white noise machine or playing relaxing music. 

Consider Behavior Modification 

Desensitization is a behavior modification method where the dog is exposed to his triggers fear-producing  at low-intensity levels at which he does not react.

Counterconditioning is behavior modification method where the dog is exposed to his triggers while receiving a reward (often under the form of a treat) so to change the dog's emotional response. 

When desensitization and counterconditioning are combined, the dog is exposed to his trigger is ways that are tolerable while being fed treats. 

Use Low-Volume Recordings 

One may therefore start by exposing the dog to recordings of thunderstorm sounds played at a very low volume while feeding treats. 

After the dog starts acting relaxed for 2-3 sessions, then the volume could be gradually increased. 

If at any time though the dog displays signs of fear, the volume would be lowered to the previous level to which the dog was comfortable before progressing again. 

When implemented correctly, with time, the dog should go from dreading the storm to tolerating it, and possibly, even developing a positive emotional state (conditioned emotional response). 

Consider Medications

 Medications can help the dog relax enough to learn coping skills and can be given as well as a form of support through the behavior modification process. 

 Many dog owners are reluctant to use meds to help their dogs, but even experiencing panic can lead to side effects from such intense stress.

Ask your vet whether clomipramine, fluoxetine or alprazolam can turn helpful. 

Other options include Sileo, (dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel) and Pexion, (imepitoin)

Did you know? A recent study has found that gabapentin may offer some promising results for dogs with thunderstorm phobia when administrated 90 min before exposure. 

References:

  • Crowell-Davis SL, Seibert LM, Sung W, Parthasarathy V, Curtis TM. Use of clomipramine, alprazolam and behavior modification for treatment of storm phobia in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003
  •  Blackwell EJ, Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA. Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: prevalence, risk factors and cooccurrence with other fear related behaviour. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2013
  • Crowell-Davis SL. Understanding behavior: desensitization and counterconditioning: the details of success. Compend Contin Educ Vet. 2008
  • Bleuer-Elsner S, Medam T, Masson S. Effects of a single oral dose of gabapentin on storm phobia in dogs: A double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial. Vet Rec. 2021;

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