Storm phobias

Storm phobias are often triggered by a change in barometric pressure, increased wind strength or rain.

OVERVIEW

Storm phobias are extremely distressing for both pet and owner. They are one of the most common types of phobias seen in dogs.

A phobia is often an inherited, extreme and uncontrollable fear response. They are thought to develop when escape from what they fear is not possible. Phobias tend to develop suddenly.

Triggers:

  • Barometric pressure
  • Increased wind strength
  • Build-up of static electricity
  • Rain
  • Thunder

A storm phobia can be a serious problem that can cause self-harm through trying to escape out windows or off balconies, overgrooming, breaking their teeth by chewing through barriers, and damaging property.

SIGNS

Common signs of a storm phobia:

  • Panting
  • Whimpering
  • Chewing excessively
  • Barking or howling
  • Salivating
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Inappropriate toileting
  • Sweaty paws

Only rarely does this condition get better with age.

CAUSES

Phobias in dogs tend to develop suddenly with early signs not often noticed. It is thought that a genetic component may exist and, therefore, run in the family line.

Common predispositions:

  • Genetics such as herding breeds (Australian Cattle Dog, Border Collie, Old English Sheep Dog, Golden retrievers)
  • Separation anxiety is common condition that dogs with phobias also suffer
  • Change in the environment such as a new house, pet or baby
  • Loud noises such as thunder or fireworks
  • Illness

Storm phobias versus noise phobias

It has been estimated that 90% of dogs that suffer from storm phobias have noise phobias too. But dogs with noise phobias do not necessarily suffer from storm phobias too.

MANAGEMENT

Phobias are difficult to treat. The goal is to improve the pets response to storms rather than completely cure.

Most pets with storm phobias require veterinary intervention. Your vet will be able to start the pet on a phobia management program that usually involves environmental and behavioural modification techniques with medication. Phobia management programs require time commitment and consistency.

Sample phobia management program:

  1. Desensitisation
  2. Counter-conditioning
  3. Environmental changes
  4. Training
  5. Behaviour-modifying medication

Desensitisation

Desensitisation describes the use of low-level storm noises to be played and gradually increased over time to help your dog become accustomed to the noise. This technique alone is not often successful as it does not address the other storm phobia triggers such as barometric pressure, wind, rain etc.

Counter-conditioning

Counter-conditioning describes the use of positive associations such as treats or play along with the low-level storm noises. It is really important not to positively reward fear behaviour. Always wait until the pet is calm before offering treats.

Environmental changes

Use background noise such as white noise, fans, television, radio or other forms of distraction such as games to help reduce the impact of the storm noise. Occasionally, moving your pet to a loud board facility such as a kennel or vet clinic can help distract your pet from the noise.

Training

A well-trained dog is more likely to settle and relax upon request. Basic sit, stay, come are important commands. Use head halters to help train your pet and practice every day by giving treats when the pet is relaxed. Start training outside of thunderstorm season. Placing the head halter during early stages of anxiety may help your pet relax.

Behaviour-modifying medication

Behaviour-modifying medications can be short acting anti-panic medications that can be given before a storm to help them cope or long acting for those dogs that may suffer from multiple behavioural issues. Doses are often modified to determine the optimal dose to calm the pet but not overly sedate them. Your pet may be prescribed fluoxetine, clomipramine, amitriptyline, alprazolam or diazepam.

Other medications that may be recommended include dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) that is a spray that may help reduce phobia signs or melatonin which is a homeopathic agent that may help treat anxiety disorders in dogs. Both of these products have anecdotally helped reduce anxious behaviours.

TIPS

Tips to help manage storm phobias:

  • Be present and calm with your pet to reduce anxiety and monitor the situation
  • A dedicated, quiet, safe room with shut blinds and lights out
  • Creating a hiding spot
  • Eye shades
  • Calming caps
  • Thundershirt (a safe, drug-free coat for anxiety) or Thunderhut (sound-deadening foam home)
  • Using low levels of recordings of fireworks or thunderstorms etc while playing with your dog to desensitise them to the sounds
  • Reward your pet for good, relaxed behaviour (not fearful behaviour)
  • Book your pet into dog daycare, kennel or vet clinic on days when storms are expected

REFERENCES

Aronson L. Animal Behavior Case of the Month. J Am Vet Med Assoc 215[1]:22-24 1999

Cornwall McCobb E, Brown EA, Damiani K, Dodman NH. Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs: An Internet Survey of 69 Cases. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 37[4]:319-324 2001

Crowell-Davis SL, Seibert LM, Sung W, Parthasarathy V, Curtis TM. Use of Clomipramine, Alprazolam, and Behavior Modification for Treatment of Storm Phobia in Dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 222[6]:744-748 2003

Landsberg GM. Clomipramine - Beyond Separation Anxiety. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 37[4]:313-318 2001

Mills DS, Estelles MG, Coleshaw PH, Shorthouse C. Retrospective analysis of the treatment of firework fears in dogs. Vet Record, 153; 561-562 2003

Rugbjerg H, Proschowsky HF, Ersboll AK, Lund JD. Risk factors associated with interdog aggression and shooting phobias among purebred dogs in Denmark. Prev Vet Med 58[1-2]:85-100 2003

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 219[4]:467-473 2001

Seksel K, Lindeman MJ. Use of clomipramine in treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety and noise phobia in dogs: a preliminary, clinical study. Aust Vet J 79[4]:252-6 2001

Sheppard G, Mills DS. Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks.Veterinary Record, 152: 432-436, 2003