There are a lot of dogs out there (and cats) who completely lose their minds during events like thunderstorms. The first thing to understand about this is that it is a completely normal behaviour. Avoiding violent noisy events like thunderstorms tends to keep you alive longer by keeping you from being struck by lightning and other unpleasant things. So the first step in dealing with this problem is to understand this.
However many dogs become incredibly upset and quite destructive during thunderstorms. Some will eliminate in the house, some have seizures, some tear things apart to “get away” and some cower in a corner with their teeth bared and try to “eat” anyone who comes near them. Our goal is to reduce these behaviours and hopefully to eliminate them entirely.
There are many ways to help your dog “adjust” to noisy events like this. One thing you actually should not do is to attempt to cuddle and re-assure them repeatedly. This actually rewards the fear behaviour and reinforces it, so you will make future episodes worse by doing this.
If your dog’s fear is mild, one of the best things you can do is simply provide him with a safe haven to “hide” from the storm. Remember that dogs are descended from creatures that create a “den” for their home. Because of this they tend to seek areas where they are surrounded on all sides by solid “walls” when they are afraid. Providing a kennel with solid walls for them in a dark, quiet corner of the house or room can help them to deal with fear. If you place a small blanket in the kennel that they can burrow underneath this can also be helpful. This will work for many dogs and is a tool that can be used for more fearful dogs in a “package” approach to dealing with the problem.
For more fearful/terrified dogs there are other options. The best option is to habituate them to the noise-source if possible. There are commercial products that simulate or actually record thunderstorm sounds like “Sounds Scary” from SoundTherapy4Pets which is backed by the RSPCA in the United Kingdom (available here via Amazon). Keeping in mind that your dogs’ sense of hearing is vastly superior to ours, you start playing these back at very low volumes for your dog and engage in rewarding fun things like games or using tasty treats to “distract” them from the noise. As time goes on (weeks not hours) you gradually increase the volume of the playback and continue the play or rewards. Eventually the dog will learn to associate the sound of the storm with fun or treats and will no longer be afraid. This method is by far the most permanent and effective method of dealing with these fears, but it is very time-consuming.
There are a couple of new approaches to anxiety behaviour modification that seem to be meeting with some success. One is a product called a Thundershirt. These work by a method similar to the swaddling of infants. The theory is that the slight pressure created all over the body by these products stimulates peripheral nerves that create a calming influence on the nervous system. Many anectodal reports exist praising these products, I even have a story myself. We have recently tried a Thundershirt on our rescue dog who is terrified of thunder storms. It seems to reduce his fear quite a bit. It doesn’t totally eliminate it, but he doesn’t desperately search the house for a place to get away from the storm while he is wearing it and he will rest near us and shake a whole lot less.
There are also products available called pheromone dispensers. The most common of these is called a D.A.P. dispenser (stands for Dog Appeasing Pheromone). Pheromones are airborne chemicals that influence the behaviour or chemistry of an animal. They have no odour and generally no effect on animals other than the species they are targeting. You simply plug these into the wall in a room and they help to reduce the degree of anxiety animals feel on a day-to-day basis. Again these are very helpful tools to use with habituation therapy to eliminate fear behaviours. These products also exist in collar forms and we have found the cat one to be very helpful with aggressive cats.
Veterinarians can also prescribe different types of medications to help severely anxious dogs deal with these problems. These range from long-term anxiolytic drugs like Clomicalm (clomipramine) or nutraceutical versions like Zylkene, to short-term sedatives like acepromazine. These drugs should all be viewed as temporary treatments however and not as cures. The fear is still there, we are just masking it with these products. However they can be tools to deal with rare events like car or plane trips, or as a part of a “package” approach to eliminating or reducing the behaviour.
Lastly of course, for truly severe conditions the best results will be attained through the use of a professional behaviourist. These people will generally come to your house (like Cesar Milan on television) and create a program for you to follow to help your severely anxious dog. We actually have a couple of these in the area of Quinte West.
For more information on the topic have a look at this article from Veterinary Partner.
Dr. Mike Steen
Hillcrest Animal Hospital