Storm anxiety is one of the most frustrating issues that dogs can develop. This anxiety can start at a young age or appear later in life, and it varies significantly in severity. The unpredictability of storms is a critical factor in why this behavior is so challenging 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 before any actual thunder or rain because dogs can sense 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 is the result of a variety of things. Noise phobias are prevalent in dogs, with general problems with sirens, vacuum cleaners, or other noises will often develop issues with thunder at some point in their lives. Dogs are also capable of sensing changes in barometric pressure. Pressure changes right before your dog can notice a storm as a pre-cursor that the scary thunder is coming. This sequence can lead your dog to get more and more anxious before the thunderstorm gets here. Think of somebody 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 naturally nervous about new things or stressed when their environment changes 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. We treat any behavior with a genetic component through management. We cannot change who the dog is as an individual, nor alter their genetic makeup. 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 scared of ambulance sirens, you can somewhat control training sessions to include them. You can 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.
The above scenario 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 not accidentally to 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, “It’s okay, it’s okay, you’ll be fine, you got this.” The assurance your friend is offering isn’t resonating because the situation and their words only exemplify the anxiety you already have.
If your dog has been through obedience training, you can utilize training to help them feel safer. A place command is an excellent 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 will 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 areas that will be unsettling, such as near windows.
The Thunder Shirt is a device created because of research into how to reduce anxiety in animals. The concept is that the sensation of being “squeezed” can help develop a state of calmness. The shirt fits snuggly to your dog and is worn. 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. 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 dog.
Crates With Anxious Dogs
Crating is another potential solution to storm anxiety. Just as with the place command, your dog’s crate can be utilized as a safe place to wait 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 other things to consider are if your dog is destructive when they get anxious. If your dog is usually destructive and then quiets down in the crate, this is the solution. 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 behave when crated.
If you have a destructive dog 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 bodies trying to do so. A fantastic choice 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 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, something as simple as a dose of Benadryl can often 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 tired, 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 vets give 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 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 medications 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 decide to go with medication, you should also incorporate training and the other management things that we have discussed to 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 with late-onset storm anxiety typically get worse and worse as time goes on and often do not respond well to the standard methods of treatment discussed above. The worsening of stress 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 mental function already, which can cause them to be scared of things that they usually would not be.
If you have a senior dog struggling with these issues, speak to a professional trainer about what possibilities are available and 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 cause even more stress, but we have repeatedly seen dogs do better at the kennel than at home. One reason for this is that your dog is already staying in a familiar, comfy kennel, so they do not feel the need to hide or try to run away. Other calm and relaxed dogs also surround them. We have had several dogs who could wean off medication after their stays with us because they made such significant progress during the Full-Service program.