Loud wind and hail attacked the house. Branches crashed onto the roof and deck. The power flashed on and off. Tim became hyperalert, trembling and glassy-eyed. Nothing Christie said got through to him. He bolted off the bed, tore through the house and ran outside. Christie found him huddled in a corner of the yard as far away from the house as he could get. She had to crawl on the ground to reach him and then wrapped him in her coat and carried him back to the house.
“I dried him off with a towel, put him in my bed, wrapped him in blankets and gave him some alprazolam and trazodone that I had. He huddled against me while I waited for the drugs to kick in. It was hours. It was awful.”
Tim, a silken windhound who was 7 years old when his fear began, belongs to Christie Keith of Davisburg, Michigan. He had come to live with her from eastern Washington, where thunderstorms are uncommon.
Storm phobias like Tim’s are common in dogs and can occur in cats as well. Dogs, however, are more likely to exhibit fear in a destructive or dangerous way, such as Tim’s escape from the house through a dog door.
Not every animal who lives in thunderstorm-prone areas becomes fearful of them, but those who do may have heredity to blame. Some have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, fear or phobia, says Lisa Radosta, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in West Palm Beach, Florida, and one of the co-authors of the book “From Fearful to Fear Free,” released in April. Based on some studies, sporting and herding dogs are at higher risk of developing storm phobias.
There’s not a single quick fix or cure, but a combination of environmental management and medication can help most animals ride out a storm safely and comfortably. Work with your veterinarian to try different techniques, supplements and medications to see what works best.
What to Try
▪ Ask about medication sooner rather than later.
“I think we tend, as owners, to wait until the dog’s really bad to try to actually intervene,” says Lore Haug, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in Sugar Land, Texas. “Then it makes it harder to get the dog under control.”
A drug called Sileo, introduced in 2016, is FDA-approved for dogs with noise-related fears. Keith calls it a “game-changer” for Tim. Other medications and supplements that may help include alprazolam (Xanax), gabapentin and diazepam (Valium), as well as natural products such as Zylkene and Anxitane.
▪ Provide a safe space. This can be as simple as a crate with a blanket thrown over it or a dark closet or bathroom without windows. Don’t close your pet inside it; you don’t want him to feel trapped.
▪ Try calming clothing. Gear such as Thundershirts, Calming Caps and Mutt Muffs can help to relieve a pet’s anxiety.
▪ Drown out storm sounds with white noise machines or calming music for pets.
▪ Try aromatherapy or calming pheromones. Scents such as lavender and chamomile can have a relaxing effect.
“Most people think there’s going to be a thing that’s going to turn your dog’s thunderstorm phobia around,” Keith says. “And what I’ve learned is that for Tim, it’s everything in combination – and it has to be the right combination.”
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.