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What are Storm Phobias?

Many dogs often develop phobias to storms; herding dog breeds seem to be more sensitive to it than others.  He may be afraid of the storm as a whole or he may be afraid of just the wind, just the thunder, just the lightning, and so on.  If your dog has a mild fear response to the storm, he may be “reactive” while a severe reaction is, in fact, a “phobia”.  You can discuss your dog’s symptoms with your veterinarian to determine which category your dog fits into.  If your dog is storm phobic, there are both natural and pharmaceutical approaches to help your dog remain calm during the storm.

If your dog begins to shake, hide, or even vomit during a storm he may have a phobia.  Discuss it with your veterinarian.

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Symptoms of Storm Phobias in Dogs

Symptoms may include:

  • Panting 
  • Pacing
  • Hypersalivation
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Urination
  • Defecation
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Freezing/immobility
  • Vocalization
  • Escape behaviors 
  • Mydriasis 

Types

The degree of fearfulness varies with each dog.   Your dog may only get slightly nervous and want to sit closer to you than normal.  He may have a more moderate reaction and shake and pant the entire duration of the storm.  Or he may have an extreme reaction and hide under the bed or in the shower or somewhere he feels safe.  He will be trying to find a way to escape the scariness of the storm.  This is known as a response of the autonomic nervous system sympathetic branch.

Causes of Storm Phobias in Dogs

Dogs with storm phobias typically have some type of extreme response to some part of a storm.  It can be the noise of the wind, lightning, thunder, changes in the barometric pressure, ozone changes, and anything else the storm may produce.  You may notice your dog does not mind a light rain but reacts when there is thunder and lightning. Each dog can be fearful of different elements of the storm.

Diagnosis of Storm Phobias in Dogs

Diagnosis of storm phobia is straightforward; even you as the owner can recognize it.  If your dog begins to act abnormally during a storm and it happens during every storm and only then, your dog has a storm phobia.  It may be the noise your dog is scared of, but it may not be.  A storm has a lot of factors that your dog may be reacting to.  It may be the noise of the thunder, or the sensation of the vibration from the thunder.  It may be the light flashing from the lightning or it may be the change in pressure they are sensitive to, but we as humans cannot feel as much.  If it is the noise your dog is sensitive to, you may notice him having the same type of fear reaction when there are fireworks or a gun shot.  However, many notice their dog having a different response to fireworks than he does to a gun or thunder. 

If your dog does not have a severe response to the storm and its elements, your dog may not have a phobia but is labeled as ‘”reactive”.  In order to determine what your dog is, you have to rule out other possible causes to the issue.  As the dog’s phobia is developing, many owners mistake their dog’s shaking or nervousness as a sign of illness or pain.  Poor hearing and vision are also common ailments they believe their dog to be suffering from.  Checking your dog’s hearing and vision is something your veterinarian can do upon general examination.  Pain can be ruled out with manipulation of the bones and ligaments.  If your veterinarian wants further verification, she may suggest a radiograph of the specific area in question.  The image will be able to rule out or confirm any type of break, damage to, or even arthritis in the area.

You can keep a journal of your dog’s symptoms in an effort to figure out his exact trigger.  Any time your dog is displaying a symptom like he does during a storm, write it down.  The more details you record, the better your chances of unearthing the exact cause.  You should document what time of day it is, the weather, if there is anything going on outside around your house or even inside your house.  By following this process, you may discover what exact element of the storm your dog is afraid of or that he may not be afraid of it at all. 

If your veterinarian is worried about your dog suffering from any other ailment or mental issue, she will recommend further diagnostics in accordance with your dog’s needs.

Treatment of Storm Phobias in Dogs

There is no cure for a storm phobia but there are ways to keep your dog more comfortable during a storm.  Some dogs like the sensation of feeling hugged or slightly squeezed as it gives them a sense of comfort.  This is why some phobic dogs try to sit in your lap during a storm no matter how big or small he is.  If this sounds like your dog, you can get an old t-shirt or cloth of some type and tie/wrap it around your dog’s thorax.  Tying it in a snug fit gives your dog the sensation of feeling hugged; this may help to calm his fears.

Another form of comfort for your dog may be a more holistic approach by utilizing essential oils and/or calming collars.  The calming collar goes around your dog’s neck, like a normal collar, but it contains pheromones that give a calming vibe for your dog.  If you want to try essential oils, you can use them in multiple ways.  You can put it in a diffuser just like you can for people, or you can apply it directly to your dog.  However, you MUST use caution when using essential oils directly on your dog.  They are extremely sensitive to the aromas and many of them are actually toxic to dogs.  Before applying it on your dog, you should consult with a veterinary professional who has had practice with the oils.  You will need to know which oils are safe to apply to your dog and at what concentration.

There are also veterinary prescribed medications you can give your dog if his phobia is extremely severe.  There are medications that are long term or short term.  Long term medications are taken on a daily basis so that it builds up in your dog’s system so that he is less anxious overall.  Short term medications are good if your dog is scared of just one thing you can predict coming.  The short term medication is given 1 to 2 hours prior to the storm and only works for a few hours.  However, it is important to note some of the short term anti-anxiety medications do not work if you administer it to your dog after he is already afraid.  Once the fear and anxiety has begun, the medication will be of little use.

There is also the method of counter-conditioning and desensitizing your dog.  This method can be tricky as it will stress your dog out in the beginning.  You play CDs of rain and storms and attempt to calm him and keep him occupied in other manners.  It may take months, but your dog’s phobia symptoms should decrease or even stop altogether in some cases.

Recovery of Storm Phobias in Dogs

There is no cure for a storm phobia.  The best thing you can do for your pet is offer him comfort when he is afraid and searching for reassurance.  If your dog is young but is sensitive to storms, try to desensitize him as early as possible.  For example, if you notice him getting nervous, give him a treat to gnaw on, to keep his mind occupied in a positive way.  

Whether you want to take a more natural approach or a pharmaceutical approach, the options are there.  Whatever works best for your dog is the best option you can provide for him.  The goal is to get you and him through the storm without fear completely taking hold.  Whatever method works for your dog is the best way for you to go.