Dogs & thunder: How to help your pet overcome thunderstorm phobia

It’s that time of year again in some parts of South Africa: thunderstorm season. While many humans enjoy the beauty of a thunderstorm – the lit-up skies and the loud crashes – our pets don’t always share in our excitement. In fact, the racket might be enough to send your pooch through a glass window

Recognising thunder phobia in your pet

When a storm approaches, does it send your dog into hiding, shivering, quivering, pacing and running around aimlessly? Perhaps you’ve even noticed your pooch chewing nervously on something, or spinning out in a fear-stricken state, as a loud clap of thunder sends them straight through your living room window.

If these extreme reactions sound familiar, your furkid may be suffering from thunderstorm anxiety or, in severe cases, thunderstorm phobia.

This condition is actually pretty common in dogs, especially in South Africa where summer afternoon storms are a common occurrence in many parts of the country.

Should I address my dog’s thunderstorm phobia?

Yes. At our practice, we always recommend addressing a fear of thunder, as it tends to get worse, not better, as dogs get older. This kind of fear isn’t something that will just go away, and if you live in an area that experiences frequent storms, it’s well worth addressing in order to give your pet peace of mind.

Managing thunderstorm phobia in dogs

It can be a difficult and frustrating process, but through a combination of techniques and perseverance, thunderstorm phobia can be managed and even brought under control. Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Don’t coddle or over-comfort your pet during a storm. Although you may think you’re easing a stressful situation, you may actually be making things worse. By comforting your pet while s/he is showing anxious behaviour, you are positively reinforcing this behaviour, leading your pet to believe that it should be repeated. The solution isn’t to punish this behaviour, but to ignore it and reward good behaviour.
  2. Establish a calming routine, reward the routine, and encourage this routine during a thunderstorm.During this process, lots of love and cuddles must be given at the appropriate time. Here’s how to establish it:
    • Start the routine when there is no storm in sight
    • Get a special leash for the routine, a comfy bed and safe spot to relax in
    • Put the leash on your dog and bring him or her to the safe spot, cuddle them there, and reward this calm behaviour. Repeat this frequently to establish a routine.
    • Now start doing this when you see a storm approaching, but before it gets too severe and your dog begins to panic. Again, reward good, calm behaviour.
    • Continue this exercise until your pet automatically goes to the safe spot when a storm approaches and stays there, calm, until it is over.
    • While exhibiting calm behaviour, reward your pet with cuddles and love. This is positive reinforcement, and because dogs aim to please, your pooch will continue this calm behaviour to please you, and in turn, reduce their own stress and anxiety.
    • Remember: perseverance is key! The panic response is not something that will be resolved overnight, so patience is needed.
  3. Try a desensitisation technique.If the stress of a storm is just too much for your pet and you are unable to calm them during a downpour, desensitisation may be the way to go. Establish your calming routine, then introduce a sound or music track with thunder in it, starting softly and increasing the volume as your dog becomes accustomed to the sounds of thunder.
  4. Introduce soothing, calming music to your dog during their calming routine, and play it when a storm hits. This may help to distract them and ease their anxiety.
  5. Give your pooch something to do while in their safe, calming spot, like providing chew toys or chew treats as distractions.
  6. Crate or bathtub your dog.Some dogs need to hide in a safe spot, and often a dog crate, indoor kennel or the bathtub works as well as a safe spot. Try different spots until you find the right place to soothe your pet, and where s/he seems to be most calm.
  7. Invest in a thunder jacket for your dog. These specially designed jackets have a similar effect to swaddling babies. They fit your dog very snuggly, putting pressure on certain parts of the body to help relieve stress and anxiety. These jackets have been reported to work very well and even solve the problem with certain dogs. It’s best to put the jacket on as soon as you notice a storm on its way, and before your dog becomes severely stressed out.
  8. Make a DIY bandage thunder jacket. A bandage is applied to your dog’s body in a specific pattern, and has the same effects as the commercial jacket. Remember when applying the bandage that it must be firm against your dog’s body in order to apply pressure, but not so firm that it restricts breathing.

    Thunder jackets have been reported to be highly effective, so if it doesn’t work on the first try, don’t give up. Let your dog get used to the calming effect, and follow the positive reinforcement rule to reward your furbaby for all good behavior.

  9. Try natural, over-the-counter anti-anxiety remedies,which may work well for some dogs and can be purchased from your vet or vet shop. They’re best used in conjunction with one or more of the techniques described here.
  10. Chat to your vet if all else fails. Medication can be given to relieve anxiety, which may be warranted in very severe cases. Remember that there is no magic pill that will fix this problem, and any medication may only mask the problem, not fix it. However, sometimes it may be necessary, and if you do go the route of medication, it’s recommended that you use it in conjunction with the calming behavior techniques and thunder jackets, so that you can wean your pet off the meds once the routines are well established.

    If you are struggling with behavior modification, get in touch with an animal behaviour specialist who will likely be able to help. You can get a recommendation from your vet.

Thunderstorm phobia can definitely be overcome, and we know you, and your furbaby, can do it! Read more articles on pet health and wellbeing, or visit our online vet shop for treats, food and more.

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