Why Are Dogs Afraid of Thunderstorms?

Come spring, many dog parents find themselves asking: why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms? Shockingly, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might assume.

It’s painful to watch your furry friend suffering from thunder phobia. Too often, the fear of thunderstorms shows up as a result of a drop in barometric pressure, dark clouds, and the crash of thunder arrive on the horizon.

If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, you might notice him or her hiding in a confined space, trembling or shaking, barking, howling, whining, restlessly pacing, drooling, or engaging in destructive behavior.

According to Terry Curtis, a clinical behaviorist at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, other symptoms of an anxious dog are “ears back, tails down, eyes wide, panting, lip-licking, and yawning.”

Though it can be easy to spot the signs of your dog being anxious and fearful of an oncoming storm, the reasons why dogs are afraid of thunderstorms is much more complicated.

There are three likely culprits that answer the question: why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms? These possibilities include canine noise aversion, separation anxiety, and — the real shocker — static electricity.

Though vets aren’t sure what all the triggers are, they do suspect that a full-blown storm phobia is caused by some combination of barometric pressure changes, static electricity, wind, thunder, lightning, and low-frequency rumbles that come ahead of a storm.

However, if your dog shows no other signs of canine noise aversion or separation anxiety — it’s very likely the static electricity that’s making them nervous.

The Shocking Truth

The reality is that thunderstorms literally charge the air with electricity, making it easier for static buildup to occur in the coat of your furry friend. It’s even easier for static to build up in larger dogs and those with double or long coats.

If your dog has a static build up in its coat, he or she might get a mildly uncomfortable shock to their sensitive nose if they touch it against metal. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University and chief scientific officer at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, explains that this could lead to a full-on phobia.

In fact, those nasty little shocks might explain why your dog takes off for the basement or another enclosed space in your home when a storm is coming, as these places are grounded. Because these areas are grounded, there is less of a threat of static electricity zapping your poor pup.

Canine Noise Aversion

Many dogs have different types of noise phobias, from fireworks and gunfire to thunderstorms. A noise phobia can be the primary reason that your dog is afraid of storms, or it could just be one of several factors that add up to your furry friend having a phobia.

If you own a border collie or Australian shepherd, it’s possible they — along with a few other breeds — have a genetic predisposition to develop noise phobias. However, it turns out that at least 40 percent of all dogs experience noise anxiety.

Unfortunately, the fear of storms and other causes of loud noises can worsen with regular exposure. This is why the severity of the signs of your dog’s fear and anxiety about a storm will often increase throughout the summer and year over year.

In fact, your dog might even start associating that fear with other, parallel noises — such as the sound of rain.

Not a lot is known or understood about noise phobias in dogs. If only they could tell us what was going on! What we do know is that this fear can develop in canines of all ages. That said, dogs over a year old are more likely to suffer from it.

Kristen Collins, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, explains, “Some dogs simply seem more sensitive and susceptible to developing a fear of noises, and this susceptibility may indicate a genetic predisposition toward the problem.”

Separation Anxiety

Though separation anxiety is a very different sort of issue from thunderstorm phobia, it can exacerbate the issue.

If your dog seems anxious as you prepare to leave, is destructive while you’re gone, or absolutely thrilled when you get home, he or she may have separation anxiety. Basically, this condition occurs when your dog is hyper-attached to you and gets seriously stressed when you’re not around.

Because you are a comfort to your pet (as they are a comfort to you) your presence during troubling times, such as thunderstorms, can be especially important. If your pet doesn’t usually display signs of separation anxiety, it is still possible that the uncomfortable and unfamiliar changes caused by a thunderstorm will trigger this form of anxiety.

What You Can Do For Your Dog During a Thunderstorm

To battle your dog’s fear of thunderstorms, it’s best to tackle the issue from all sides.

The first step is the simplest, which is allowing your pet to decide where it feels the safest when a storm rolls into town. Once you’ve established that area, do what you can to make it as comfortable as possible for your dog. This could include adding white-noise to drown out the thunder, or acoustic tiling for soundproofing.

If that’s not helping, or if you simply want to do more, buy your dog an anti-static jacket. Clinical studies have been executed with regards to the effects of wearing such jackets, including the Anxiety Wrap. The Anxiety Wrap is designed to use acupressure and gentle, constant, maintained pressure to relieve stress and anxiety.

Dr. Dodman, along with Nicole Cottam and James C. Ha, tested the effectiveness of this product with dogs who experience a thunderstorm phobia. The results were good: “The data suggest that the Anxiety Wrap is a safe and effective treatment for canine Thunderstorm phobia.”

If your dog is experiencing behavior problems or showing signs of thunderstorm or noise phobia, it’s best to consult your veterinarian. They will be able to advise you on what the best course of action is, including the possibility of anti-anxiety medication or canine noise aversion drugs. In fact, you might need to have an antianxiety medication prescribed to your dog by your veterinarian.

According to Kelly Ballyntyne, clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, if your dog is panicking, anti-anxiety medication “will go a long way to improve that dog’s quality of life.”

That said, you shouldn’t be reaching for the medicine cabinet — so to speak — as your first, second, or even third attempt to help your furry friend battle his or her fear of thunderstorms.  Behavioral modification techniques can be very powerful tools when it comes to dealing with your dog’s anxieties and fears.

When it comes to anxiety and phobia, the most effective form of behavioral modifications is counter-conditioning and desensitization.

Counter-conditioning involves training your dog to perform positive behaviors instead of being fearful. This could mean sitting and getting a treat when thunder crashes instead of scampering off somewhere to hide.

While counter-conditioning could be the fix, desensitization is also an option. This sort of training requires controlled exposure to what’s causing the fear in a way that your dog does not respond in a negative way.

Unfortunately, depending on what factors cause your dog’s fear of thunderstorms, it can be difficult to provide controlled exposure. Nonetheless, setting aside everything you’re doing and focusing on training your dog when a thunderstorm is approaching can make a huge difference over time.

Final Thoughts: Why Are Dogs Afraid of Thunderstorms?

So, why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms? To be fair, storms are big, intense, and complicated weather occurrences. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is no simple answer to that question. However, by taking into account the possible causes from canine noise aversion to static electricity, it’s possible to do what you need to protect your furry friend and lessen his or her anxiety about the oncoming storm.

If your dog’s worst nightmare comes true, and he or she is actually struck by lightning, bring them to an emergency vet immediately — even if they are miraculously standing afterward.
Have other questions around a specific dog or cat issue? Get in touch and we’ll do our best to help you out!

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