No easy answer for dogs who fear storms

Dog owners who spend many a stormy night struggling to get some sleep while a panting, drooling, trembling pet climbs around on top of them know that the fear of thunder can be a tricky problem to solve.

Dogs with the condition often look to their owners for comfort, yet are in such a state of panic, they are inconsolable. And it can be hard to know how to soothe an upset dog without unwittingly reinforcing its anxiety.

Potential remedies include medication, desensitizing the dog to thunder and training it to retreat to a safe place when a storm hits. There is also canine “thunderwear” such as earmuffs, head halters and swaddling attire, including a snug leotard for animals called a sheep suit, that can help calm stressed-out dogs.

But there seems to be no single cause for the fear of thunder, and there also isn’t any one guaranteed treatment, veterinarians who specialize in canine behavior say. Something that helps one dog might not help another; a method that works during one storm may not in another.

“Many dogs can be helped. But me, personally, I’ve never known of a dog that was cured of this problem,” said Dr. Elizabeth Shull, a veterinary behaviorist and neurologist in Louisville, Tenn., and Southfield, Mich.

While some breeds have more of a reputation for fear of loud sounds such as thunder, “it certainly is not limited to any breed, any age, or any sex of dog,” Shull said.

Researchers have yet to figure out exactly what’s behind thunderphobia.

Among the theories: Some dogs may be genetically disposed to the problem; others may have learned to be afraid of storms after having a bad experience or seeing a person or dog in the household become anxious during a storm. Some may be anxious in other situations, such as when they are left alone; some may extend their fear of thunder to other aspects of a storm, such as rain and whistling winds; some may be acutely sensitive to any sudden, loud noise; some may 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.

“So in the beginning, owners don’t notice a real phobia, until the dog is older,” said Voith, adding that it’s unclear whether owners fail to notice a small amount of anxiety building over time, or whether the phobia didn’t actually start until the dog was several years old.

The severity of a fearful dog’s reaction can also vary. Some are mildly anxious. Some pant, quake, drool or become almost catatonic. In the most severe cases, dogs become frantic and hurt themselves breaking through windows, clawing through paneling or running into traffic if left alone during a thunderstorm.

“It’s a sound that is coming from around and above and everywhere. It’s a terrifying experience for a lot of animals who have a more sensitive temperament,” said Dr. Michael Fox of Minneapolis, a veterinarian who writes the syndicated newspaper column “Animal Doctor.”

Fox suggests trying to desensitize the dog to thunder by playing a tape or CD with storm sounds: Switch it on for a few minutes and let the dog “freak out” for about a minute, then switch it off. Let the dog settle down. A few minutes later, switch it on again for another 30 to 60 seconds, then switch it off. Repeat it about five times at intervals of 10 minutes for four or five days, then repeat it a week or two later, he said, adding that the timing can be flexible.

More than just the noise of the storm may be at work. Fox and others theorize that other aspects of a thunderstorm, such as static electricity and changes in barometric pressure, may also disturb dogs.

That may explain why some dogs seem to detect storms before humans can, and why some dogs who panic when it thunders at home are just fine in the car, or retreat to the bathtub or shower when a storm hits, said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian and head of the animal behavior program at the Tufts University veterinary school in North Grafton, Mass.

Dodman suggests finding a safe place for the dog and training it to go there during storms, “almost like a bunker in a nuclear war.” It could be a spot in the basement with the curtains drawn and lights on to mask lightning, a kennel with an open door and a comfortable dog bed in it, or a makeshift den in a closet with no windows.

Other tips:

Ÿ Turn up the television or stereo to try to mute the sound of thunder.

Ÿ It may help the dog to be around calm dogs in the household.

Ÿ Don’t scold the dog or discipline it when it’s anxious.

Ÿ Let the dog stay close to you, but don’t coddle it.