Help available for storm-phobic dogs

SHARON THEIMER Modified: August 13, 2009 at 4:45 am •  Published: August 13, 2009
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Dog owners who spend stormy nights struggling to sleep while a panting, drooling, trembling pet climbs around on them know the fear of thunder can be tricky to solve.

Potential remedies include medicine, desensitizing the dog to thunder and training it to retreat to a safe place when a storm hits. There also is canine "thunderwear” such as earmuffs, head halters and swaddling attire that can help calm dogs.

Researchers haven’t figured out what’s behind thunderphobia. Among the theories: Some dogs may be genetically disposed; others may have learned to be afraid after having a bad experience during a storm. Some may be acutely sensitive to any sudden, loud noise; some fear thunder and no other sound.

Dogs’ problems with thunder often do not become apparent until they are 4 or 5, said Dr. Victoria Lea Voith, a professor of animal behavior at the Western University of Health Sciences veterinary school in Pomona, Calif. It’s unclear whether owners fail to notice a small amount of anxiety building over time or whether the phobia didn’t start until the dog was several years old, she said.

The severity of a fearful dog’s reaction also varies. Some are mildly anxious. Some pant, quake, drool or become almost catatonic. In severe cases, dogs become frantic and break through windows, claw through paneling or run into traffic if left alone during a thunderstorm.

Dr. Michael Fox of Minneapolis, a veterinarian who writes the syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor,” suggests trying to desensitize the dog by playing a recording with storm sounds: Switch it on and let the dog "freak out” for about a minute, then switch it off.