Thunder Struck

When we moved from California six months ago, I suspected that our two dogs, Nellie and Quinn, might not take kindly to the frequent thunderstorms we would experience in the mountains of North Carolina. My hunch was accurate. While I was enjoying the late afternoon rockin’ and a rollin’ my two little pumpkins were experiencing a whole lot of shakin’ and quakin’! Left to her own devices, I sense that Nellie would not be bothered by the thunder, but her best buddy Quinn’s panting, yawning, trembling, and clingy behavior were clearly a bit contagious.

I needed help and sought advice from colleagues who specialize in dog training and behavior. They had several good suggestions for riding out the storm with a thunder-phobic dog.

  • Step number one is to pay close attention to weather forecasts and know when thunderstorms are likely to roll in. Anti-anxiety strategies are far more effective when implemented before rather than after Mother Nature’s “music” begins.
  • Provide a “safe place” for your dog to ride out the storm. Ideally, this is a small, dark space such as a crate (door left open) or an enclosed room with curtains drawn along with a radio or stereo playing to drown out the sound of the thunder. Acclimate your dog to this environment. It will help if he associates this special spot with special treats or a food-dispensing toy.
  • The Thundershirt® is a tight fitting wraparound body shirt designed to apply gentle, constant pressure to the dog’s torso. This contact is intended to reduce anxiety and fearfulness. Researcher Temple Grandin believes that such “body enclosure” has a profoundly calming effect.
  • Desensitization is another option in which a recording of thunder sounds is initially played at a low enough volume that it does not appear to cause any fear or anxiety for the dog. The volume of the recording is very slowly increased over time until the dog no longer responds to the sound, even when loud enough to mimic real thunder. Add to this desensitization some counter-conditioning in which the dog receives something cherished (tug-of-war, food treats, brushing, tummy rub) while the thunder recording is playing, and he will hopefully begin to react to the real thing with pleasant associations rather than distress.
  • Pheromone sprays and collars are safe and relatively inexpensive and may reduce thunder-associated anxiety.
  • Natural supplements such as L-theanine (an amino acid found in tea leaves) and melatonin (a naturally occurring hormone) may decrease anxiety in response to thunder.
  • Medications that reduce anxiety (anxiolytics) may be of benefit. Benzodiazepine drugs, such as Valium and Xanax, are potent anxiolytics when used at the lower end of the dosage range. At higher dosages they tend to cause sedation. After consultation with your veterinarian, a “practice dose” or two should be tested independent of a storm to find the appropriate dose for your dog. Acepromazine, a commonly prescribed tranquilizer for dogs, is not recommended because it causes sedation but does not significantly reduce anxiety.
  • Easier said than done, but do your best to relax and behave as if everything is completely normal during the course of a storm. Any anxiety on your part will be contagious to that mind-reading four-legged companion of yours.

I encourage you to consult with your veterinarian and a reputable trainer or behaviorist as part of your dog’s thunder desensitization program. Also know that the techniques described above can be utilized for most any noise phobias (fireworks, shotgun blasts, etc.).

Here’s what I’ve done thusfar to alleviate Quinn’s thunder-phobia which has, in turn, markedly reduced Nellie’s anxiety. Quinn wears a pheromone collar and when thunderstorms are in the forecast, I give him a morning dose of melatonin. These tactics combined with use of a Thundershirt® and my consciously calm behavior seem to be turning the tide for my “thunder-struck” little boy.

Is your dog fearful of thunder? If so, what have you tried and how has it worked? If you happen to be a dog trainer or behaviorist, I hope you will chime in with your experiences.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

 

 

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21 Comments on “Thunder Struck

  1. My experiences with Rescue remedy and other flower essences is that they are largely too subtle for something like fireworks/storms. They may work over time, and do take the edge off, but if your pup is going bonkers they don’t do much.
    This is how I use them. I line up the ones I have chosen for the situation, then I take them myself! Especially Rescue Remedy!

  2. For dogs who suddenly become sensitive I recommend thinking about testing for Addison’s disease if there are any other symptoms. My first thunder phobic dog became that way when she was an Addisonian.
    I had almost extinguished my thunder phobic dog’s reactions with homeopathy when July 4 rolled around and my neighbor had some M-80s. She was a mess. I find that loud TV doesn’t help, just gives me a giant headache and a bad ‘tude! Anyway, since i live in FL and we host the city that’s the lightning capital of the US, we get a lot of thunderstorms. There’s no way to predict which rainstorms will have thunder and I don’t remember Melatonin doing much. When it starts to rumble I spray DAP around her head and if gets louder I use my own makeshift Thundershirt – which is a stretched out 6 foot wide Ace bandage. Sometimes she just lays down and that’s that. Sometimes I add a homeopathic to that or a calming herb.
    I don’t know what 4 July will bring. I’m considering driving around half the night. And fireworks are illegal here. Bah.

  3. Again we enjoyed your wonderful article. I just wanted to comment how much our Great Dane Cyndi LOVES her Thundershirt too and looks forward to wearing it the minute it comes out of the dryer! She has seemed so much more comforted since we purchased it, and she looks quite lovely in the bright pink and white striped suit! Combined with a nice blanket in our closet she seems happy and less nervous when we get the thunderboomers that seem so much closer to us now we live here in FL than when we lived in WNY.
    Thanks again,
    Lisa and the NorthStar Danes Crew~

  4. I highly recommend the Thundershirt, and with it’s money-back guarantee, it’s worth a try. My 85 lb. Greyhound was terrified of thunder and other loud noises. After I got him a Thundershirt, he remained calm during the worst storms. He often came to me as he sensed a storm approaching, so I could put his shirt on.

    Many friends of mine have used the shirts on my recommendation and were also happy with the results.

  5. Many years ago we were fortunate to meet a man that had invented the Storm Defender Cape for fearful dogs. Tom was just beginning his promotion of this product and he approached us to see if we had any dogs in our rescue that were afraid of thunderstorms. We were skeptical but willing to try the cape for one of our rescued shelties, Nicholas. Nicholas had been found frozen to the ground underneath a trailer and was now afraid to go outside the house under any circumstances. Thunderstorms were extremely difficult for him to deal with.

    Tom came to our home and took measurements to make a cape for Nicholas. Within a matter of days we received the cape for Nicholas and detailed instructions on the proper use. Now, to make a very long story short…..Nicholas no longer needs the cape! The dog who was so afraid of an approaching storm that he would try to jump through a closed window to escape now has no fear of thunderstorms at all. This cape has worked wonders for many of our dogs. We have several capes in various sizes and use them as needed for any dog in our home that is traumatized by a storm. I can’t praise this cape enough!

    We have tried the Thundershirt and we have had no luck with it. Maybe we are spoiled by the fact that the Storm Defender cape has worked so well for so many of our dogs. You can visit http://www.stormdefender.com to learn more about this cape and place an order if you like. It is more expensive than a Thundershirt but we truly believe that there is no comparison between the two products. The Storm Defender Cape is the best!

    Cathy Tucker
    Co-Director
    Precious Secrets Sheltie Rescue
    Middletown, OH.
    http://www.PSSR.org

  6. I have used tight sleeveless t-shirts in the past on a former dog. They do work!

    Valerian root appears to have fewer side effects than most other chemicals/herbs used. My older dog is a Malinois and I think his hearing is becoming more sensitive as he ages…….

    Maybe I’ll try the squishable ear plugs next.

  7. One of the most effective aides to storm-phobic dogs that was not mentioned is Tellington TTouch. The combination of the bodywork techniques and the bodywrap (from which the Thundershirt idea was developed) promote relaxation, reduce stress and anxiety and redirect habitual behavior patterns. In the 16 years I have been a TTouch practitioner I have found nothing better to support an anxious animal through natural and non-invasive means.

  8. One thing I think is important to be mindful of is that a dog who may not be bothered by percussive noises may develop a problem with them as they age. I was at a friends one 4th of July, when fireworks could be heard in the distance, and small ones out on the streets. My friend assured me his dog was not bothered by them, but I saw him trembling and drooling. It took a while to convince my friend that these noises bother him NOW, although he used to be unaffected.
    I used to love the 4th of July; now I spend it with several shaking dogs on my lap while the TV blasts us all…

  9. I have and use a Thundershirt on a foster in more than just stormy situations. The first time she wore it at a training class – nothing. The second time, she allowed people to approach her. The third time, she approached them. It takes a couple of wearings.

  10. Through a Dog’s Ear has a CD of music specifically for noise phobia. I cannot personally testify to its effectiveness because I have not had the need, however, I can say I have seen impressive results from playing a CD they have for dogs who are anxious in cars.
    Thundershirts and Anxiety Wraps are similar, I do not have a preference. Anxiety Wraps existed first, Thundershirts came out with a lower price, Anxiety Wrap lowered their prices. Now they are, I believe, the same.
    Both the wraps and Through a Dog’s Ear CDs should be used ahead of time to condition the relaxation response, although sometimes they work anyway!

  11. I have had success with my own dog and clients’ dogs by also playing Through A Dog’s Ear vol. 1 for thunder (rare in NorCal) and fireworks. Celtic music by Enya or Loreena McKennitt also works. I didn’t use the thundershirt but did ttouch wraps or used a small tshirt tied snugly on him. Melatonin works great for him too. I alway give a dose of that a few hours before fireworks “week” starts around here. Always check with your vet first re melatonin and the correct dosage per your dog’s body weight. DAP is also plugged in at my house during this time too.

    Another way to desensitize your dog is to teach him a fun game while playing loud noises, starting out at lowest volume.

  12. How about “Rescue Remedy” I am trying it for the cat in my family. Not sure yet if it is working. Has anyone else tried this?

  13. I have a CD of thunderstorms that I use when I have puppies — I’ve never had a problem with a dog having fear of storms since. Thank goodness.

    Good luck with your journey with getting Nellie and Quinn adapted to their new home in North Carolina!

    Always great to read your emails Dr. Kay!

  14. I’ve read conflicting research about using Melatonin….i.e. causes migraines, seizures, other problems. I’ve been using Valerian Root on my older boy who is just now exhibiting some anxiety(he’s approx. 7-8 yrs) before the storms arrive!

    From the behaviorist’s point of view, DO NOT TOUCH OR HOLD YOUR DOG during the it’s anxiety phase!!!! You will reinforce the fears it is feeling and produce an even more psychotic dog…………

    Other sites have said to check liver enzymes if a younger dog has thunder phobias.

    Mom of 3

  15. I, too, am now using a Thunder Shirt. However, when I tried playing a recording of a thunder storm my dog did not react – no matter how loudly I played it. My trainer/friend said it probably was not the sound but the barametic pressure that was setting her off. It might be reasonable to buy the Thunder Shirt even if your dog does not respond to the sound. It has certainly made a difference in our dog.

  16. But isn’t it more the electricity in the atmosphere that they sense and can feel? My last little sweetie “Rickey” was terrified by these storms and would run around barking the whole storm. I tried the desensitivity route by playing a thunderstorm CD and the whole nine yards but he hated them anyway. I don’t know…

  17. My problem this time of year is fireworks. Indiana allows exploding shells in city limits, which I think is insane. I’ve never experienced this before and I made the mistake of moving to a house about 100 yards from a fireworks store where they set them off at totally random times to “demonstrate.” All the neighbors hate this. My petsitting client last year was so traumatized that after July 4 he would bark at the moon every time he heard a loud noise. My 4-1/2 year old cocker is afraid but I’m trying not to coddle her. So far so good but we still have 2 weeks to go. If she’s outside when one goes off she’ll run inside but she’s stopped barking.

  18. I think you have it pretty much covered there, from what I’ve learned and also from what people do and works for them.

    This is the one area we’re very lucky, our guys don’t care about these things, unless one hits really close.

  19. always have rescue remedy on hand…. and the thundershirts have been great for many of my clients… more than thunder too. I have some that have random fears … mostly rescues or mill dogs… really helping

  20. My 70 pound Boxer mix is not only fearful of thunder and other loud sounds, she is also bothered a great deal by a strong breeze blowing through the windows. When she begins to show distress, #1, I REFUSE to coddle her. I do not want her to feel she gets rewarded for being a chicken sh*t.

    I have had success putting her in the bathroom, window closed, door slightly ajar. I feel it’s important that she not feel punished for this behavior, either. She is in a quieter environment, feels safer, and is free to leave when she feels comfortable. While she does not get in the tub, I have heard that some dogs will do that. It seems the porcelain helps dissipate the electrical charge in the air during a thunderstorm that dogs can be sensitive to.

    On a side note, I had a Boxer that I recently had to put down. The 2 dogs had fought in the past and were kept 100% separated at all times. After the Boxer was gone, the stress that the Boxer mix exhibited during storms decreased. I asked a dog trainer friend about this. Their opinion was that even though the 2 dogs were separated, the Boxer mix somehow sensed a lower threat level in the house and became less fearful of other stressors.