Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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There's Hope for Thunder-Phobic Dogs


Pet Column for the week of March 27, 2006


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Zeus Barger and Belle Carpenter were two dogs who shared a common problem. Like many dogs, they were deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Fortunately, Zeus, Belle, and their owners have found ways to manage their thunder phobia.

Dogs can sense subtle changes in barometric pressure, so they may sense a thunderstorm an hour or more before it hits. Dogs who suffer thunder anxiety may pant, pace, salivate, and paw at doors excessively before a storm, and when thunder sounds, they may shiver, whimper, or even become destructive, scratching at doors and floors, possibly to the point that they hurt themselves. This was the case with Zeus.

Zeus was a golden retriever who found a simple way to deal with his fear of thunder. He belonged to Dr. Anne Barger, a veterinary pathologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

"Zeus was a sensitive soul," explains Barger, who would put Zeus in a kennel while she was away at work. One day when it started to storm, she worried about Zeus and went home to check on him.

"By the time I got there, he had gotten out of kennel. He was so afraid, he was able to bend the metal bars and squeeze out." Not only did Zeus destroy his kennel, but he also hurt himself getting out--his face was swollen and cut from the ordeal. During another incident, Zeus was outside during a storm and trying to get inside, he scratched at the door so violently he demolished the door and wore his toenails down until his paws were bleeding.

The solution to Zeus' problem was surprisingly simple. Dr. Barger explains, "Zeus and I came to an understanding: I told him I wouldn't put him in the cage anymore if he found a place in the house he could go to feel safe during thunderstorms." Eventually Zeus found that the lying in the upstairs bathtub made him feel more secure during thunderstorms.

"I knew an hour ahead of time that a storm was coming, because Zeus would head upstairs and look at me as if to say 'I'll be in the tub if you need me.' In the tub, Zeus calmed down, his breathing and heart rates became normal, and he wasn't hurting himself."

When asked to theorize why Zeus chose the bathtub, Barger says, "The bathtub is such as strong, solid appliance that when the thunder shakes the house a little, the tub may muffle the vibrations." Barger also notes that the bathtub is a cool, quiet place, and that her bathroom doesn't have any windows, keeping Zeus from seeing the lighting, which also triggers anxiety in some dogs.

Dr. Rachael Carpenter, a veterinary anesthesiologist at the teaching hospital, also has a thunderstorm phobic dog named Belle. For years, veterinarians have prescribed sedatives to calm dogs during storms, but Carpenter explains that these medications may sedate a dog, but the dog may still feel anxious even though it doesn't show signs of agitation. "Of course, you can't ask the dog if it still feels anxious, but now there are drugs on the market that are specifically made to treat anxiety, not hyperactivity."

Aside from medical treatment, behaviorists recommend counter-conditioning and desensitization. "To counter-condition your dog, teach her to settle and relax on command. Train her to go to her bed and lay down on command when it's not thundering, so when the thunder comes, she already understands that command."

Carpenter explains that often pet owners do the opposite; by offering a pet treats, praise, and consolation petting when the animal is panting, pacing, and whimpering, they are essentially rewarding the pet for acting anxious.

Carpenter also recommends playing CDs or audio tapes of thunderstorms to desensitize a pet to the noise. "Start it out quietly, and then play it a little louder. At the same time, tell the dog to go to its bed and relax, and reward them for lying down and relaxing."

A novel solution that Carpenter has tried with Belle is a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) diffuser, an over-the counter product available at most pet stores. "It looks just like a Glade Plug-InŽ," she says. The diffuser releases a pheromone that is similar to the one that mother dogs release when their puppies are nursing.

"It's supposed to be very calming, and you simply plug it into the wall and keep one around during storm season." Carpenter recommends combining a DAP diffuser with behavioral training and drug therapy.

Pet owners can learn from Zeus and Belle that there are several options for dealing with a thunder-phobic pet, from medications and pheromones to training, or simply letting the pet seek out its own hide-out. As Dr. Barger notes, "Often dogs will let us know what they need if we just give them the opportunity."

For more information on thunder phobia, behavior, anti-anxiety medications, or DAP diffusers and your pet, consult your veterinarian.