What's going on
For years veterinarians have prescribed anti-anxiety medications to dogs that suffer intense fear (phobia) or anxiety from thunderstorms. It has not been clear if these patients were reacting to the noise, ozone, flashes of light, wind, rain, creaking trees, a drop in atmospheric pressure, or some combination of these stimuli.
A recent article by Dr. Nicholas Dodman* proposes that dogs are most affected by the electrical discharge or static that accumulates under certain atmospheric conditions. Some have speculated that seizures may be triggered by changes in barometric pressure or perhaps gravitational forces under certain lunar or weather patterns but this is a practical theory for the uncanny ability of animals to sense an oncoming storm and seek safer ground.
Dr. Dodman, a Board-certified animal behaviorist explained that "about 50 percent of storm-phobic dogs climb into the sink, bath, jacuzzi, shower pedestal, or squeeze themselves behind toilet tanks or up against metal radiators or pipes during storms. Presumably they have found by trial and error that there is some degree of protection in these locations. All of these locations represent electrical grounds that would dissipate any built-up static charge."
Static electricity building up on or around a cat or dog can be discharged by touching the skin (armpit, ears, or groin for example) and a metal water fixture at the same time. Sitting on a ceramic tile or concrete floor while holding the pet may be enough to dissipate static electricity. You may need to open a cabinet door under the kitchen or bathroom sink to access a water pipe while touching your dog but avoid touching water pipes if there is lightning. Clearing static from a companion animal may only be needed once in anticipation of an oncoming storm, to settle an anxious pet. It is a good idea to check with a licensed plumber or electrician to be sure the water pipes are properly grounded.
Dr. Dodman advises animal owners to 'find a safe place where the dog can get away from all aspects of the storm'. He recommends the basement, preferably where the windows are small or can be covered with thick curtains to minimize distraction from light and noise. In lieu of a basement, any quiet room well insulated against the outdoor noise is second best. Some dogs prefer to go into their crate or under a table, but all dogs should be prepared for possible evacuation to a safe room by practicing a storm drill. Being moved to the safe room should be a pleasant experience prior to a real storm.
What you can do
A variety of natural and artificial medications have been sold for thunderstorm phobia in dogs without good clinical trials to prove their efficacy. We've trialed some of them and have a few favorites based on the time needed before a therapeutic effect, safety, and acceptance by dogs or cats. Dr. Kruesi may prescribe anti-anxiety therapy depending on the individual case, since dose, frequency, and potential adverse effects make a one-size-fits-all approach inaccurate.
Thunderstorm wraps like the one shown below can provide some relief. We created a TTouch Body Wrap fact sheet in 2004 which we have posted on our website ever since. It is one of our most popular webpages!
There are ready-to-wear garments for dogs with noise or thunderstorm phobia such as the "thundershirt", www.thundershirt.com. Dr. Dodman reported good results with the "Storm Defender Cape" jacket that features an anti-static lining:
The "Anxiety Wrap" is a jacket for dogs and cats with noise phobia that relies on acupressure and a snug fit to elicit tranquility: http://www.anxietywrap.com. The Gentle Leader "Calming Cap" is a behavior modifying accessory that is designed to lessen a dog's anxiety or aggression in high-stress situations. There are user ratings and a good description of this and other training aids at Amazon.com.
Long Term Considerations: Nutritional Therapy for Anxiety
Dr. Dodman's article does not discuss the importance of diet, digestion, and nutritional imbalances in animals with thunderstorm or noise phobia.
Food has a direct impact on intestinal bacteria and brain chemistry. It is the safest behavioral modifier of domestic animals.
At CRVC we treat animals with hyperactivity disorders, chronic tension, or anxiety through a healthy diet, nutrition, ortho-molecular therapy, prescription drug withdrawal, and chiropractic care.
*Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs- An Update, Veterinary Practice News, August 2011, p. 39
- William K. Kruesi September 15, 2011