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Is your dog afraid of thunderstorms?

Does your dog become anxious and snuggle up against you when she sees a flash of lightning?  Does she try and escape through a plate glass window in terror when she hears the boom of thunder?

True thunderstorm phobias can be debilitating for both dogs and their owners.  These dogs are more than just anxious.  They are drooling, shaking, and howling while frantically digging their way through your carpet or making themselves as small as possible in the corner of your bathroom. 

There are a number of factors that can influence the development of this phobia in dogs.  Storm phobia appears to be more complex than other types of fear-related disorders, because there are multiple triggers that influence an individual dog at the same time.  Veterinary behaviourists feel that the phobia is more than a severe reaction to loud noises.  Some of these dogs may be acutely sensitive to the static electricity in the air, and/or the smell of ozone produced by lightning.  They can predict storms well before we even notice the changes in our environment that signal oncoming weather changes. 

We can look at how dogs deal with their phobia to provide ideas about how to treat them.  Some dogs will press against metal radiators, hide between the toilet and the bathtub or actually jump into the bathtub to try and “escape” the storm.  These dogs may in fact be trying to “ground” themselves against the static electricity in the air.  There are commercial “storm jackets” on the market that either contain materials to help diffuse static against a dog’s skin, or simply act to “hug” the dog. This may help a dog to self-soothe during these times of extreme stress.

Our own responses to the behaviours we are witnessing may also influence a phobic dog’s learned response to thunder and lightning.  We now know that there is a huge difference between ignoring a fearful pet and treating that individual with a calm, loving, and patient attitude.   A soothing demeanour will go a long way to teach your loved one that he or she has nothing to worry about.  Physical or verbal punishment, of course, has no place in dealing with these issues.

Finding a “safe” place in your home can offer relief for many dogs.  Pet parents will often use the basement or another room where they can block sounds and light from the phobic dog.  Basements may help with the “grounding” effect and decrease the smells associated with a storm.  Active play and obedience sessions may distract a dog who is mildly affected or who otherwise has reacted well to these other forms of desensitization and behavioural modification.

Where these techniques do not work alone or where the pet may harm themselves or others because of their distress, veterinarians may prescribe specific medications to help moderate the emotional, physical, and mental responses to storms.  Some dogs will take medication daily for several months through “storm season” while others may benefit from short-acting medications given when a period of bad weather is anticipated.  Your veterinarian is the best person to offer you advice concerning any medical or behavioural condition from which your individual pet is suffering.  Your doctor may also refer you to a dedicated specialist in your area who can provide advanced care for canine storm phobia therapy.

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