What can I do to help my dog's fear of thunder and lightning?

Kristen,

Can you tell me what I can do to help my dog when it thunders and lightning outside? When it even starts to rain, my lab shakes and tries to crawl in my lap. I wouldn't mind but he weighs 85 lbs. He is petrified and shakes all over.

Thanks, Zeke

 

Hi Zeke,

I'm glad you asked this question because storm or noise anxiety is a very common problem for dogs. My dog Buck even had a serious case of storm anxiety.

While it's a common problem, there is not usually a simple solution.

It’s important to point out that treatment of thunderstorm phobia is highly individualized because each dog has a different level of anxiety and coping mechanisms unique to him or her. Another very important item to note, is that in most dogs, storm phobia typically gets worse as time goes on, so it is critical that you get your pet help as soon as possible--even if their signs are currently mild.

Because of my own dog's fear, I interviewed a board certified veterinary behaviorist for advice. I'll share the Q & A with you below. My hope is that your family and others will learn what storm phobic does are going through and the importance of seeking help for them.

(Veterinary behaviorists also study what psychologists study (learning theory, developmental and comparative psychology, and behavior modification) along with animal welfare. They use techniques from both skill sets and they know medicine and the effects of disease on behavior. Seek a specialist near you at http://www.veterinarybehaviorists.org.)

Q: How common is thunderstorm phobia in dogs?
A: No one has added up the totals, plus who knows how many dogs don’t get treated and wouldn't be counted. Right now, in the middle of the storm season, 40-50% of my cases are storm phobia.

Q: What are the typical symptoms?
A: Fear is easy to recognize: shaking, trembling, drooling, crying, whining, escape or hiding attempts and an inability to find a safe place, (restlessness, pacing, going from hiding spot to hiding spot.) If it only happens during storms, it’s thunderstorm phobia.

Q: What about dogs who are afraid of other loud noises like fireworks and/or gunfire?
A: That would be noise phobia.

Q: So what is going through a dog’s head when they start to panic?
A: The parts of the brain that trigger the fight or flight response turn on in response to situations that are not necessarily deadly, but the alarm if full blown and real to the dog. This is a phobia – it is an exaggerated fear response that does not involve rational thought.

Q: What are treatment options?
A: Treatment is individualized and depends on how severe and when the panic is triggered, the health status of the pet and the dog’s home environment.

Q: What advice would you give dog parents who believe their pet has thunderstorm or other phobias?
A: Discuss with your vet, in detail, what the dog is doing, when, how often and so on. Do not assume that your dog is handling things all right because he hides in the closet or wedges herself tightly behind the toilet, shaking like a leaf. Your dog is suffering. Crating your dog may prevent damage to your property, but it doesn't treat the cause. I have seen enough dogs who have broken teeth, jaws, nails or lacerated their mouths or worse getting out of crates. Panic usually intensifies the longer it goes untreated.

Here's a more lengthy story I wrote two years ago about Buck's storm anxiety.

Kristen_Buck-60x60

Written by:
Kristen Levine, pet lifestyle expert

August 10, 2009

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