Thunderstorm phobia is a common, well-recognized condition in dogs. (It appears to occur far less often among cats.) Those afflicted will display increasingly exaggerated reactions to the sound of thunderstorms. Though it's considered a subset of noise phobia, a heightened sensitivity to the sights and smells of storms, along with the presence of electromagnetic radiation and changes in barometric pressure, are also considered a feature of this behavioral disorder.
Though every pet may manifest this phobia differently, there are some unifying features of this disorder:
Pets become increasingly fearful of storms with each successive thunderstorm.
Pets socialized to thunderstorms early on in their puppyhood (between 7 and 11 weeks old) may be likelier to avoid this fear in the future.
Dogs with thunderstorm phobia also tend to suffer from other phobias (such as separation anxiety, for example).
Early intervention is the key to successful management of this treatable disorder.
Symptoms and Identification
Pets who act out fearfully during thunderstorms tend to display one or more signs of distress, but it's important to note that many dogs may not become afraid of storms without also having displayed other signs of anxiety. There are subtle signs owners can be on the lookout for to identify a noise phobia like this before the effects become severe.
The following signs of storm phobia are listed in order of increasing severity.
Increased vigilance (such as barking at the sound of thunder)
Seeking human attention
Hiding or withdrawing
More intense vocalization (howling, whining)
Affected dogs, once sensitized, may very rapidly progress through these signs with each subsequent storm. Such is the hallmark of a true phobia.
While all breeds are susceptible to thunderstorm phobia, research into which breeds might handle this type of noise phobia best has been done among working dog breeds. Of these, herding dog breeds appear to be most predisposed to thunderstorm phobia. As such, a genetic component to this disorder is assumed.
The mainstay of treatment for thunderstorm phobia (indeed, for any noise phobia) involves the implementation of behavior modification programs. These types of programs focus primarily on altering the patients' response to storms by teaching them to relax. Pet owners can also employ basic behavior modification with a program that involves exposing dogs to recorded thunderstorm sounds at increasing volumes.
Keeping dogs isolated, calm and quiet in confined spaces has also been shown to be effective for many dogs. For this reason (among others), trainers and behaviorists recommend training dogs to use crates comfortably early on in their social development. Many dogs may also seek out these spaces on their own (closets, bathtubs, under beds, etc.) and their owners should be encouraged to allow them this form of respite.
Nonetheless, simply containing a dog against her will may make the situation worse for some. This is especially true if dogs are left outdoors in confined spaces during storms.
There have been anecdotal reports (though no conclusive studies) demonstrating the efficacy of commercially available pressure wraps (such as the Anxiety Wrap and the Thundershirt) for storm phobic dogs. The Storm Defender Cape is also a possibility; though this wearable device works to deflect the electromagnetic radiation (evident as static electricity) some dogs may be reacting to adversely.
Drug therapy may be necessary for some dogs. A variety of sedatives and anti-anxiety medications have been employed with varying degrees of success. These must be individually tailored to each dog's unique behavioral needs and physiology. They are generally considered a last resort.
Whatever the approach (multimodal is best), intervening early on is absolutely crucial.
The cost of treatment depends wholly on the severity of the problem and the owner's commitment to treatment. Since owner compliance tends to vary widely and treatment can be expensive (either because of the expense of hiring trainers, behaviorists and veterinarians or because owners have to invest large amounts of time to treatment), the cost of this condition also varies dramatically.
For example, it is not unusual for a veterinary behaviorist to charge $200 for an initial visit and trainers to charge $50 to $100 an hour for their services. Highly compliant owners with dogs who are manageably affected will tend to incur fewer of these recurrent charges.
While phobias, by definition, can't be prevented, moving to an area free of thunderstorms is one possible choice owners might elect. Such drastic efforts, however, might be wholly unnecessary if owners take proactive steps to detect the early signs of thunderstorm phobia and initiate treatment as soon as possible.
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Overall KL, Dunham AE, Frank D. Frequency of nonspecific clinical signs in dogs with separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and noise phobia, alone or in combination. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2001;219(4):467-473.
Overall KL, Juarbe-Diaz SV, Dunham AE, et al. Phenotypic determination of noise reactivity in 3 breeds of working dogs: roles for age, breed and careful assessment (abstr). J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res 2010;6(1):in press.
Yokoyama JS, Chang ML, Tiira KA, et al. Genome-wide association study of the canine anxiety phenotype noise phobia. J Heredity, submitted.