Dog owners who spend stormy nights 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 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.
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. 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. 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.
"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 and syndicated columnist.
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." The owner should initially stay with the dog and offer treats and training to reinforce the idea that it's a pleasant place, Dodman said.
Swaddling a dog can also help, calming it like a baby wrapped in a blanket. It can be as simple as wrapping the dog in a light blanket or towel. For a snugger fit, an animal leotard called a sheep suit — typically used on show animals to keep the coat tidy before competition — is an inexpensive option. Fox and Dr. Elizabeth Shull, a veterinary behaviorist and neurologist in Louisville, Tenn., and Southfield, Mich., recommended an item called an Anxiety Wrap.
Other things to try include anti-anxiety medications, either alone or in combination. It's becoming increasingly common for vets to prescribe the generic version of drugs such as Xanax or Prozac for anxious dogs.
The natural herb valerian — the herbal form of Valium — can also be effective, Fox said.
"The trouble is that it takes a good 20 minutes before it has effect, so you're going to be doping your animal before the big storm comes," Fox added.