We’re at the start of hurricane season, in a summer that has distributed some severe thunderstorms all over the country. Lying on the floor comforting two panting dogs (one who won’t sit or lay down, just stands and pants, heart racing) thinking about what to write, it’s obvious that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution to thunder phobia.
It’s More Than the Sound
We don’t know why some dogs don’t care if the house is shaking and others cower at a distant thunderclap, but don’t leave your dog to “sweat it out” without any help. While young dogs can have a fear of thunder, depending on their early experiences (i.e., rescues who were left outside in areas where people feel this breed should be an “outside dog”), veterinarians feel that thunder phobia usually begins in dogs between ages 4-7 years, when their thyroid function starts to drop. It follows that as a dog ages, it can become more pronounced.
Unlike general noise phobias, like trucks or fire engines or fireworks, where the noise is the big trigger, thunderstorms add the additional changes in barometric pressure, the darkening skies and even the smells that precede or accompany a thunderstorm. Each of these can trigger a physical response from a dog’s highly developed senses, and the dog usually knows the storm is coming before we do (unlike the obvious onset of fireworks or gunshots). Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Professor Emeritus at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, believes that while noise triggers certainly play a role in thunder phobia (like increasing release of the stress hormone cortisol), the shocks generated by the static electricity that comes with these storms can be the most frightening to dogs, especially to breeds with thick coats. That’s why they seek refuge in places that provide excellent electrical grounding, like bathtubs, showers or the tile floors in your kitchen or behind the toilet. Anti-static capes or wraps like the Storm Defender or even wiping down the dog with a fragrance free, anti-static dryer sheet (as Dodman suggests in this article can help lessen the discomfort, especially in long- or thick-coated dogs.
With varying degrees of thunder anxiety, it’s important to have a stash of possible solutions in mind, particularly when a new dog comes into your family.
Start with Basics
Some dogs just need your immediate presence, with verbal reassurance that everything’s fine. Many require a “safe place” to get away from the worst of the noise and flashes of lightning, such as a closet or crate (covered by a sheet) or bathroom (sometimes in the tub), or a basement away from windows. What if you’re not home? One of NGPR’s favorite behaviorists, Roman Gottfried, has recommended installing a video camera for one of our fosters with severe thunder phobia, such as the Canary system or Furbo. This enables you to speak to your dog to calm her, and if possible direct her to go to her “place” or lay down in her crate or bed.
Swaddling with a Thundershirt (www.thundershirt.com, where you also can find the “ThunderCap” which works by reducing your dog’s visual stimulation) can be reassuring to some dogs; more than one of us has resorted to wrapping ourselves around a new dog whose heart seems to be beating out of her chest during their first thunderstorm in a new home. A few owners have told us that just having the dog on a leash next to them seems to reassure the dog enough to calm them (and a Gentle Leader or other head halter can comfort some dogs as well). Giving high-value treats during thunderstorms can help desensitize some dogs, with anticipation of the storm producing a tasty treat, as described in Dr. Patricia McConnell’s posting. Others go into panting, heart-racing panic attacks, lean against walls looking dazed, or become destructive if left alone, even going through windows. Owners who have let their dogs outside during a storm quickly realize that their dog is going to try to “outrun the storm” and climb or break through fencing and be miles away before they know it. Many dogs are lost during hurricanes or thunderstorms.
Calming collars (Dog Appeasing Pheromones or herbal) can help mild anxiety. Playing calming music on the radio or using a calming CD that can be put on “repeat” or using a white-noise machine can also help block out the sound.
CBD oil is a common remedy for anxiety in pets, and should be discussed with your vet in terms of dosage and strength and which brand they prefer. It’s available in dropper form or even treats, though keep in mind that CBD oil is best absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth. For those who are open to homeopathics and medicinal herb remedies, Rescue Remedy for Pets, an alcohol-free, flower essence formula, may fit the bill. This article gives an overview of natural remedies.
For a stronger approach, or even to layer on top of a remedy like CBD oil, products with melatonin and valerian, such as Serene, which contains melatonin, valerian and GABA, another calming compound, can add more strength. Some people use L-theanine successfully as a calming agent, which is sold under various names, such as Anxitane chewable tablets (made by Virbac, and available widely) or in combination products like Composure and ComposurePro (which also adds L-Tryptophan).
Desensitizing for thunderstorm phobia with the sounds of thunder is a debatable subject in veterinary circles, because, while you can produce the sound, you can’t produce the ozone smells produced by lightning and static electricity that dogs pick up on. However, if you do feel your dog is reactive primarily to the noise, you can try desensitizing your dog to the noise by recording thunder on your phone and playing it in short bursts but accompanied by yummy treats, or follow this CD training from Victoria Stilwell’s series on noise phobias (which also has specific CD’s targeted to fear of cars, children or going to the vet).
Sometimes a dog’s fear of thunderstorms takes over to an extent that requires more serious medications. For some, there is Xanax, which takes about 20 minutes to take effect and wears off relatively quickly, can be given twice a day, but no more than 4 mg. in any 24-hr period. Any drug meant for humans, however, should be used only under veterinary supervision for your dog, since these drugs are based on human body mass, which is much higher in humans than in dogs. Some vets such as Dr. Nicholas Dodman, from Tufts University Behavioral Clinic, seem to prefer BuSpar (buspirone) for phobias and ongoing anxiety (it formerly was used for treating urine marking in cats), mostly if there seem to be constant triggers in your neighborhood, such as fireworks and gunshots.
In recent years, a new FDA-approved treatment specifically for calming dogs with noise aversion is available by prescription. Sileo is applied between a dog’s cheek and gums using disposable gloves, and must be applied at least 30 minutes prior to the “noise event” to give it time to take effect.
Check Before You Medicate!
Whether your medication of choice is herbal or prescription, first check with your vet to see if it’s safe for YOUR dog. Something as common as melatonin can be a problem if your dog has liver issues, and some brands of melatonin for human use are blended with Xylitol, which is toxic to pets. Prescription medications such as those listed above have restrictions on age and pre-existing conditions such as liver, kidney or heart issues, or even dental disease that could affect absorption of medications that depend on the mucous membranes.