What Is It About Thunderstorms That Causes So Much Fear And Anxiety In Some Dogs?

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Countless dog owners deal with the often heartbreaking circumstance of their beloved dog experiencing sheer panic during thunderstorms that tend to occur in late summer.  Here in my home state of Florida, dogs prone to thunderstorm anxiety suffer on a near daily basis from July through October.  I have an 11 year old yellow Labrador who began experiencing thunderstorm anxiety as he neared 2 years of age so I deal with this issue not just as a veterinarian but also as a dog parent who loves his dog dearly.

So why do some dogs react so fearfully to thunderstorms?  The noise of the thunder probably plays a significant role, but some dogs like mine, may suffer thunderstorm anxiety, but may be okay with other loud noises like fireworks. My late Border Collie mix Lulu was the complete opposite, as she had zero fear of thunderstorms while fireworks set off panic.

Like my Lab, some dogs are akin to being a living barometer where he may be pacing and anxious while it is sunny, quiet, with calm winds, and clear skies outside, but there is a storm on its way still 45 minute out.  Thus, the effects of the thunderstorm on dogs prone to thunderstorm anxiety are clearly multi-factorial and include:

  • Noise
  • Static electricity
  • Barometric pressure drop

Thunderstorm anxiety often worsens with time, especially if measures are not taken to reduce its severity.  From experience, there is rarely one single remedy an effective approach is typically multimodal.  Below are some common remedies, some natural, some not, listed with pros and cons:

  • Apply a snug garment – this is when a snug fitting shirt like the Thundershirt is placed on the dog that has an effect like swaddling a new born baby.  The shirt Storm Defender takes this concept a step further by integrating a metallic lining to the shirt that the product claims disperses static electricity.  Most of the benefits of these products are anecdotal by I see them work often enough to recommend giving them a shot.
    • Pros – Drug free approach that legitimately provides anxiety relief to some dogs.
    • Cons – They often do not work.
  • Pheromone therapy – A veterinary pharmaceutical was able to synthesize and bottle a calming pheromone that the lactating female dog emits to calm her puppies and encourage them to nurse.  The product, Adaptil, comes in plug in diffusers and sprays.  The diffusers provide 24/7 therapy in a 700 square foot space, while the sprays last for 6-8 hours.  Some dog owners spray down snug garments with Adaptil prior to fitting the dog in the shirt.
    • Pros – Drug free approach that legitimately provides anxiety relief to some dogs.
    • Cons – Costly for some dog owners, sometimes does not work.
  • Sedatives like Valium and Xanax
    • Pros – Often work well to relieve anxiety, not very costly.
    • Cons – Effectiveness usually lessens over time and doses need to be increased or drug changed frequently, if storms blow in quickly there is not adequate time to absorb the drug in the GI to provide relief, the drug often lingers longer than desired period, and they are drugs that need to be eliminated metabolically in most cases by the liver.  There is a relatively new product called Sileo that is a micro-dose of a commonly used veterinary tranquilizer that is very effective, quick acting (it absorbs by transmucosally after application on the gums), and relieves anxiety without obvious sedation or lingering side effects.  Its main con at this point is cost.

I have found herbal calming remedies so largely ineffective that they do not make my list as a legitimate strategy to manage thunderstorm anxiety in dogs.  I usually tell owners that they may be worth a try because they are generally safe and they have nothing to lose other than a few bucks in trying them.

Realistically, most people never find a cure, but the right mix of some or all of the above.  If it is affordable, Sileo has been the most effective treatment that I have used for my own dog, but even at wholesale pricing, I find it cost prohibitive with a daily thunderstorm occurring every day in Florida from early July through late October.  I also do not like the notion of drugging (albeit a micro-dose) my dog for 3 months out of the year.  Thus, I generally reserve Sileo for major tropical storms and hurricanes, rely on Thundershirt with occasional Valium and scratching Bernie’s head.  My presence per my wife’s observance, makes a huge difference in how Bernie responds to management strategies, which is why I often take him to work with me during the summer months.

My advice to you is to work with your vet to find the right approach for your dog and go with the right mix of approaches may require both natural and pharmaceutical management.

Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms.  In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport.  He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health  blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. I have read somewhere that it is because of their acute hearing. Even my pets feel uneasy when they hear loud sound. On particular during the holiday season.

  2. I have never noticed that dogs do fear thunderstorms. I have dogs but I don’t pay attention to them whenever it is raining and there is thunderstorm because they are always in their cage. But now, I will start to pay attention to them.

  3. This is something I deal with all the time.. I never saw it as a big of a deal but now, I will talk to the doctor to find a way out..dogs deserve to be calm during thunder storms

  4. Thanks for sharing this information, I’m sure it Will help many dog owners. I’m lucky because my dog doesn’t suffer this panic atatcks cause by thunderstorms.

  5. I never knew that there are a lot of factors as to why they are scared. I just thought dogs are just plain scared of thunderstorms. This article helped me understand how my dog feels. Just amazing!

  6. I have always known that their ears are sensitive but not to the point of cowering in fear during a considerable amount of noise such as thunder. With that said, thanks to this I know have an idea how to handle them whenever things get a bit too loud.

  7. Thanks for this extremely informative article. Thunderstorm anxiety is something many dog owners don’t know how to deal with.

  8. The remedies you suggest are very reasonable for dealing with thunderstorm anxiety in dogs. I think a combination of them can work really well.

  9. In my opinion the pheromone therapy seems to be the most effective. This is mostly because I can understand the science behind it.

  10. I have never understood why some dogs have thunderstorm anxiety while others don’t. It would be interesting to know the reason.

  11. I don’t like using sedatives like valium and xanax. I feel like the dog may get addicted to them.

  12. I must say I have tried herbal remedies before and they just never seem to work. Your recommendations look great.

  13. Like you have rightly noted, a mix of these methods is more likely to work than just a single method. Thanks so much for the article. I have learnt quite a bit about thunderstorm anxiety in pets.

  14. Every dog is special and unique in its own way. A remedy that may work on one dog may not work on another and vice versa. That’s why it’s always best to consult with a vet before choosing a remedy for your dog.

  15. I’ve never heard about the snug garment remedy for thunderstorm anxiety. I wonder how effective it is.

  16. I am impressed by the pheromone therapy but I can imagine it has to be rather costly. However, it is still the most appealing therapy to me.

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