Storm phobias are often triggered by a change in barometric pressure, increased wind strength or rain.
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.
- Barometric pressure
- Increased wind strength
- Build-up of static electricity
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.
Common signs of a storm phobia:
- Chewing excessively
- Barking or howling
- Destructive behaviour
- Inappropriate toileting
- Sweaty paws
Only rarely does this condition get better with age.
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.
- 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
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.
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:
- Environmental changes
- Behaviour-modifying medication
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 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.
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.
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 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 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
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