As the wind picks up and a storm blows in, you might notice your dog exhibiting fear. Perhaps they pant, start to whine, lick their lips, put their ears back, tuck their tails, shudder, or jump into the bathtub. In extreme instances during a storm, dogs can become inconsolable and so agitated that they damage your home or hurt themselves.
Veterinarian Nancy Dreschel, an instructor at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, observed that when the weather changes, signaling a coming storm, many dogs react by producing more of the stress hormone cortisol. She and the other researchers were surprised both by how high the frightened dogs’ cortisol levels rose during a thunderstorm and how long they remained elevated afterwards.
While most dogs who have a fear of thunderstorms can be calmed during or soon after the thunder passes, some have severe phobias (exaggerated fear responses) and need careful training and fear management in order to deal with these natural events.
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What causes the fear?
Many dogs are afraid of thunder because they are upset by loud noises. It is estimated that 25-50% of dogs have some level of noise aversion. Dog hearing is much more sensitive than human hearing, which means that they can detect thunder sooner than we can, and it sounds much louder to them. Dogs who did not experience loud noises during early socialization and dogs with separation stress have been shown to be more susceptible to becoming noise averse when they are suddenly faced with loud claps of thunder.
Barometric pressure and static electricity:
As the air pressure drops before a storm, many dogs become agitated. This drop in pressure might affect their sensitive ears and cause them discomfort or pain. Some dogs can ‘sniff’ out changes in the weather as the barometric pressure falls and makes scents travel differently.
Dogs may also be reacting to a build-up of static electricity in their fur. Thunder is caused by the pressure shock of lightning. The positive and negative electrical charges in the atmosphere build until the air cushion between them breaks down and there is a rapid discharge of electricity; that is what we call lightning. Studies done by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior department at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine showed that dogs who get agitated during thunderstorms might be reacting to numerous tiny electric shocks caused by the electrically charged air of a storm. This can especially affect large dogs with thick or double coats of fur. The static charge might then lead to a number of small shocks rippling through their fur or a stronger shock as the dog touches their sensitive nose to metal objects. These electric shocks might help explain why dogs seek out grounded areas where electricity can’t travel, like a tile-floored bathroom or even the bathtub, to minimize that bad feeling.
How to help
Each dog reacts differently to storm related stress, and you might need to work through a few possible supports to find one that works to alleviate this stress for your dog. Remember that our fur friends can sense our emotions, so try to project an aura of calm control to comfort your agitated pet. You can soothe your stressed dog without worrying that you are encouraging fear-based stress, and it might work to distract them with a favorite game of tug or playing with a toy. Never punish or reprimand your dog for exhibiting fear behaviors, even if it will temporarily stop whining, barking, or digging. They will associate punishment with storms and it will heighten their already stressed behavior.
Preventing your dog from developing a fear of thunder and lightning from the beginning is often recommended by animal behaviorists. Pairing the negative stimulus of the storm with treats and an excited ‘Wow!’ could help to turn this scary event into something positive for your pup. Dr. Katherine Houpt of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine found success in using recordings of thunderstorms played at increasing volume to desensitize dogs to at least the sound aspect of the storm.
Giving your dog access to a safe den-like space can also help calm them during a storm. Including a piece of clothing or towel with your scent and a special toy can work to distract and soothe a frightened dog. Adding some background noise could help diminish the fear that comes from loud, unexpected sounds. People have found classical music seems to be soothing for their upset dogs. Chewing or licking toys can also be good distractions.
In the event that you are able to anticipate a storm’s arrival, dogs can benefit from ElleVet Sciences’ Calm and Comfort Chews. These CBD + CBDA chews provide maximum-strength situational support and are most effective when given 1.5-2 hours in advance of a stress-triggering storm.
A product such as a wrap or vest can calm your dog by applying a gentle swaddling pressure to the dog’s torso and offering soothing comfort. These also work to disrupt the static build-up on the dog’s coat, which can be bothersome for dogs with long double coats.
Dr. Dreschel from Penn State has done studies to determine the effectiveness of naturally derived pheromones. These dog-appeasing pheromones are secreted by the mammary glands of nursing dog mothers and have been shown to support dogs in stressful situations. Using a diffuser, spray or pheromone infused collar can be effective methods to deliver this comfort.
The bottom line
Remember that a dog’s fear response to thunder is not voluntary, and you will need to work with your dog to find effective ways to get ahead of the stress, such as offering ElleVet’s Calm and Comfort, or helping them manage the stress, such as creating a soothing environment for them to help them feel safe and comfortable during the storm. Approaching a storm with a calm, positive attitude will go a long way to helping your unhappy pet through this event. Understanding some of the causes behind their storm stress will put you in a good position to help everyone get back in a sunny mood quickly.