Thunderstorm Anxiety (Phobia)

Thunder anxiety occurs commonly in dogs. The effects can be nervousness, hiding, or panic which may result in a medial emergency. I have seen thunderstorm anxiety cause heart attacks, heat exhaustion, broken teeth and nails from trying to get through a door and hysteria causing disoriented aimless running through traffic. There are several approaches to minimizing or preventing thunderstorm anxiety.

The most conservative is behavioral training or desensitization. Desensitization is done by the use of thunderstorm sounds. This can be recorded and played back on a daily basis for several weeks at gradually increasing volume levels and times. Make sure the environment is safe and secure. The dog is kept there until the fearful response subsides by no more than 50% per session. This response does not always transfer well to “real” storm situations as other factors including atmospheric pressure, illumination and smell stimuli may affect the pet’s behavior. Desensitization can also be done during actual thunderstorm situations with calm petting and relaxing companionship to reinforce normalcy. This is more apt to be successful when storms are on a daily basis at a specific time of day. Caution is urged when punishment is used as this usually intensifies fear.

Certain drugs can be used in conjunction with desensitization training to treat the fear response of thunderstorm anxiety. The treatment may take 30 to 60 days. This allows for behavior modification with a gradual reduction in dose for a period of 14 days to monitor if undesirable behavior recurs. It is important to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations as many of these drugs may require monitoring organ function.

Sedatives such as Ace Promazine and Diazipam are used commonly as needed to control thunderstorm anxiety. Currently a double release diazepam pill for dogs is available for situations where and owner is at work all day or cannot medicate the pet at the time when afternoon storms roll in.

There are numerous herbal and natural gentle sedatives available that have shown benefit. These include ingredients such as Valerian, Kava (Piper Methysticum), Melatonin, etc.

Thunderstorm anxiety can lead to serious medical conditions. It is best to treat or manage this problem when you dog is young or as soon as possible.

By Thomas E. Carlos, DVM MS

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