As thunderstorms approach, anxiety levels increase in certain dogs. For some, the problem is mild, but the frantic behavior of extremely storm-phobic dogs leaves no doubt about the terror they're feeling. Perhaps dogs sense subtle changes in barometric pressure, odors in the air and changes in static electrical fields heralding a storm before humans do, theorizes animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman. Symptoms of a panic attack may include pacing, trying to squeeze into unusual hiding places, panting, drooling, whining, shivering and losing bladder or bowel control.
Not Just Fear -- Genuine Terror
Severe storm phobia can manifest itself in puppyhood or be triggered in adult dogs who haven't shown earlier symptoms. If it happens, don't underestimate how terrified your pet might actually be. A study published in 2005 in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science” found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol spiked by 207 percent in the saliva of some affected dogs and stayed high long after the storm had passed.
The Static Electricity Theory
Lightning is nature's most extreme manifestation of static electricity. On a smaller scale, the buildup of polarized ions in the air before thunderstorms can cause a dog's fur to become statically charged. Dodman, director of the animal behavior program at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, theorizes that dogs who have experienced painful "static shocks" to sensitive areas because of this buildup may be more likely to develop storm phobia as a result. This hypothesis occurred to him after hearing reports from multiple dog owners that before and during thunderstorms, their pets took refuge in sinks, tubs, shower stalls and even behind toilet tanks, all of which were non-conductive and would therefore help dissipate any static charges on fur, Dodman realized.
Noise Phobia Another Possible Trigger
Dodson calls storm phobia a "multiple, composite condition" which, depending upon individual dogs, may be triggered by one aspect of a storm or several. Sometimes storm phobia can be symptomatic of more general noise phobia. In storms, panic attacks are brought on by the sounds of thunder, wind and rain pounding on the roof but at other times, other loud noises might spark similar anxiety.
Herding Breeds May Be More Susceptible
If the conclusions of a 2001 article published in the “Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association” have wider application, herding breeds may be genetically predisposed to storm phobia. After reviewing an online survey of 69 owners of storm-phobic dogs, the authors found that those whose ancestors were more likely to have been exposed to thunderstorms while working outdoors accounted for 41, or almost 60 percent, of cases. The study also found the condition was reported in a disproportionately high number of dogs adopted from shelters or through rescue groups, suggesting that emotional trauma or instability in early life might also be a factor.
Helping Dogs Weather Storm Phobia
Creating a comforting haven in a bathroom, basement or closet, or under a bed or behind a sofa can help relieve your dog's storm anxiety, the Humane Society of the U.S. advises. Add pillows, blankets, toys, treats or anything else with positive associations for your pet. When a storm breaks, turn on a fan, radio or television to help drown out the noise. Coax your dog to make use of this makeshift bunker even in normal weather.
- Tufts Magazine: Animal Instincts: The Shocking Truth: Calming Fido's Fear of Thunderstorms
- The Bark: Why Dogs Fear Thunderstorms
- Veterinary Practice News: Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs—An Update
- Universe Today: How Is Lightning Formed
- Anchor Animal Hospital: Thunderstorm Phobia
- The Weather Channel: Dog Care: Dogs and Thunderstorm Phobia
- The Humane Society of the United States: Finding Calm in the Storm