Storm anxiety is one of the most frustrating issues that dogs can develop. This anxiety can start at a young age or can appear later in life, and it varies greatly in severity. The unpredictability of storms is a key factor in why this behavior is so difficult to work through; especially in Florida, where sudden thunderstorms can crop up with no warning.
What Is Storm Anxiety?
Storm anxiety is a behavioral issue in dogs where they become very stressed and worried when a storm occurs. Storm anxiety can start well in advance of any actual thunder or rain because dogs are capable of sensing barometric pressure changes. Common behaviors that dogs with storm anxiety can exhibit include…
- Destructive behavior
- Being very clingy to a family member
- Trying to bolt or flee
Why Does Storm Anxiety Develop?
Like most dog behavioral issues, storm anxiety can be caused by a variety of things. Noise phobias are very common in dogs, and a dog with general issues with sirens, vacuum cleaners, or other noisy things will often develop issues with thunder at some point in their life. Dogs are also capable of sensing changes in barometric pressure. Pressure changes right before a storm can be noticed by your dog as a pre-cursor that the scary thunder is coming. This can lead your dog to get more and more anxious before the storm even gets there. Think of somebody that is scared of public speaking. They generally aren’t nervous right when they get on stage, they tend to get anxious in advance because they know what is coming.
A genetic component can also come into play. Dogs who are naturally nervous about new things or stressed when their environment changed are prime candidates to develop storm issues.
Why Is Storm Anxiety So Hard to Treat?
Storm anxiety is an issue that is very difficult to fix, for a variety of reasons. Any behavior with a genetic component is going to be treated through management. This is due to the fact that we cannot change who the dog is as an individual, and we cannot alter their genetic make-up. Another thing to keep in mind is that storms are very unpredictable in terms of when they happen. If you are working with a dog who is scared of ambulance sirens, you can somewhat control training sessions to include them. You can go take your dog to the sidewalk outside of the hospital and you know that you will get the chance to work on desensitizing your dog to the sirens because an ambulance will come by sooner or later.
This isn’t the case with storms. In the spring and summer, you typically get storms pretty frequently, but you might get a dry spell of a few weeks where there isn’t a storm. You might be at work when a storm crops up, or it might happen overnight when you are asleep. All of these factors make counterconditioning storms very difficult.
How Can You Help Your Dog
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to help your dog. One of the first things to make sure you do is to not accidentally reinforce anxious behavior. Tons of affection, petting, and hugs may seem to you like they would help comfort your dog, but in actuality, they can make your dog feel more anxious. Let’s go back to our public speaking example, and imagine that you are about to go out to speak and your friend grabs you and starts saying in a frantic voice, “It’s okay, it’s okay, you’ll be fine, nothing bad is going to happen”. The stuff that your friend is saying doesn’t even get through to you because the situation and their tone promotes your anxiety.
If your dog has been through obedience training, you can utilize training to help them feel safer. A place command is a great tool for anxious dogs. The place is a safe spot for your dog, and they feel very comfortable there. When you know that a storm is going to be arriving, you can tell your dog to go to their place and give them a good “busy” bone. Put the place in a low traffic spot of the house, away from places that will be the loudest, such as near windows.
The Thunder Shirt is a device that was created because of research into how to reduce anxiety in animals. The concept is that the sensation of being “squeezed” can help create a state of calmness. The shirt fits snuggly to your dog and can be worn for extended periods. This makes it a potentially good option for those who know a storm will crop up while they are away at work. However, this device does not work well with every dog, with some dogs having only minimal difference with it on, and others having no change. Other similar strategies include pheromone sprays and diffusers, playing music or leaving the TV on, and commercially available calming supplements. These are worth trying but do not be surprised if they have little to no effect on your individual dog.
Crates With Anxious Dogs
Crating is also a potential solution to storm anxiety. Just as with the place command, your dog’s crate can be taught to them in a way that they view it as a safe place to ride out the storm. Some dogs even naturally seek out their crate, or a space like a closet, because it is enclosed and gives them security. Right before the storm hits, put your dog into their crate, close the door, and cover the crate with something like a blanket to give them even more of that enclosed feeling.
Some additional things need to be considered if your dog is destructive when they get anxious. If your dog is normally destructive and then quiets down in the crate, then this is definitely the solution for you. However, if your dog tries to be destructive in the crate, they can potentially hurt themselves trying to get out. This is one of the reasons why you should condition your dog to the crate well in advance so that they understand how to act in there.
If you have a dog who is destructive in or to the crate, you need to invest in a high quality/safe crate for your pet. Wire kennels and the standard plastic kennels are not a good option for these dogs, as they are easy for dogs to destroy, and they can hurt their teeth or their bodies trying to do so. A fantastic option for destructive dogs is KBC Kennels. These kennels are almost impossible for a dog to tear up, and the material is not harsh like metal is. They also have more of that enclosed feeling already, which can help your dog to feel more secure.
Medication and Storm Anxiety
Medication is another potential solution for this issue, and there are pros and cons. If you have a dog with mild anxiety, often something as simple as a dose of Benadryl can help quiet your dog down. Consult with your veterinarian about what dosage is right for your dog. Another simple thing to try is CBD oil. CBD oil can help bring down your dog’s anxiety level without making them too drowsy, and it has the benefit of being able to be given on shorter notice than many of the anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals on the market.
Two of the most common medications that are given to treat anxiety in dogs are Trazadone and Prozac. Trazadone is often the better option for storm anxiety because it is quicker acting, easier to adjust, and is very affordable. Prozac is a medication that was originally created for people and is frequently prescribed for dogs as well. The biggest issue with it is that it can take 6-8 weeks for you to see results from it, and even then, the medication may not work at all for your dog. If your dog then does not get any benefit from it, you need to put more care into taking your dog off of the medication than you do with something like Trazadone. Some dogs do not respond to any medication and require one or more of the other methods of treatment that we have described.
Medication helps many dogs, and can potentially be a good option for your dog. If you do decide to go with medication, you should also incorporate training and the other management things that we have discussed to really ensure that the results last.
Storm Anxiety in Senior Dogs
One of the most unusual things about storm anxiety is that it can show up late in life with a dog who has never had issues in the past. Dogs that have late-onset storm anxiety typically get worse and worse as time goes on, and often do not respond well to the common methods of treatment discussed above. The worsening of anxiety can cause these cases to become a danger to themselves, as they will be prone to panic and can get destructive. A safe, enclosed space where the dog cannot be dangerous to themselves is critical in these cases.
The natural process of aging can also be a contributing factor here. Dogs who have arthritis, joint issues, or other sources of pain can have general anxiety that gets worse with storms. Storms bring about drops in barometric pressure that can cause your dog’s aches and pains to worsen, creating a bad association. Aging dogs may also have decreased in the mental function already, and this can cause them to be scared of things that they normally would not be.
If you have a senior dog who is struggling with these issues, speak to a professional trainer about what possibilities are available and what is the right path to take with your dog.
Storm Anxiety at The Doghouse
We frequently get asked by training and boarding clients if the dogs handle thunderstorms well when they stay with us. Most people think that the new environment on top of the storm would just cause even more stress, but we have seen time and time again that dogs do better here than they do at home. One reason for this is that your dog is already staying in a nice, comfy kennel so they do not feel the need to hide or try to run away. They are also surrounded by other dogs who are calm and relaxed, and who show that there is nothing to be worried about. In fact, we have had several dogs who were able to wean off medication after their stays with us because they made such great progress during the Full-Service program.