In our last discussion we talked about how to identify thunderstorm phobia in your pet. Treatment is a much broader topic. Treatment varies based upon the severity of the phobia, how long-standing it is and commitment of the owner. The first hurdle was identifying the behavior in your pet. The second hurdle is finding the right mix of treatments that will soothe your pet.
The first thing to remember is to refrain from giving rewards or punishment while your pet is displaying fear or anxiety. This is extremely important. Constant petting or consoling may be interpreted by the pet as a reward or reinforcement for the fearful response. Similarly, the pet should not be punished for showing fear. This will only increase his anxiety level.
Typical thunderstorm phobia treatment includes a combination of three things:
- Medical therapy
- Changing the environment
- Behavior modification
Medications may be given individually or in combination. Some medications can be given throughout the thunderstorm season and an additional medication can be added when a storm is predicted. Examples of medications used to manage noise phobia include:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Amitriptyline (Elavil)
- Buspirone (Buspar)
- Clomipramine (Clomicalm)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Dexmedetomidine gel (Sileo) NEW
Prescription medications should always be given under direct supervision of your veterinarian and always consult with your veterinarian before discontinuing any medications. Alternative therapies have also been used with some success. Examples include melatonin and flower essences such as Rescue Remedy.
By calmly changing the environment of the animal during the storm or noise, the anxiety level can be reduced. Changing the environment may reduce the volume level of the sound or help make the pet less aware of it.
Increase vigorous exercise:
The pet should receive vigorous exercise daily and if possible more exercise on a day when a thunderstorm is expected. The exercise will help to tire your pet, both mentally and physically, and may make him less responsive to the noise. In addition, exercise has the effect of increasing natural serotonin levels, which can act as a sedative.
Reduce or block the noise level:
“White noise,” such as running a fan or the white noise machine may aid in blocking out some of the fear-producing noise. Playing a TV or music (such as an Alexa or Google Home) can have a similar effect. Allowing the pet access to the basement or a room without outside walls or windows may decrease the noise level. Keep the curtains and windows closed.
Create a safe haven:
Some pets feel more comfortable in a small space such as a crate or a small room like a bathroom (run the fan and leave the lights on). Some pets seek out the safety of the bathtub or shower during a storm. (Some have hypothesized that a pet may feel less static electricity if on tile or porcelain.) If the pet is comfortable in a crate, the crate can be covered with a blanket to add to the feeling of security. The door to the crate should be left open and the pet should not be confined to the crate, which could dramatically increase the stress level. Some pets, especially cats, may find that a closet or area under the bed makes a good retreat.
Project a calm attitude:
Pets are very aware of the mental state of their owners. If you are worried or nervous, this will add to the pet’s fear. Your pet will look to you for direction, so keep calm and quiet.
Similar to swaddling an infant to keep them calm, ThunderShirt’s® patented design applies a gentle, constant pressure on a dog’s or cat’s torso. Using pressure to relieve anxiety has been a common practice for years. One scientific study found 89% of pet owners who used the ThunderShirt® found it helpful!
The following are special behavior modifying techniques used to help change the animal’s response to the noise.
Using counterconditioning, the animal is taught to display an acceptable behavior rather than an unacceptable one as a response to a certain stimulus. In this way, a negative stimulus can become associated with a positive event. For instance, the only time the pet gets his most favorite treat, game, or toy, is just prior to and during a thunderstorm as long as the pet isn’t showing signs of fear or anxiety. Dogs who enjoy traveling may be taken for a car ride, or cats who love catnip, may be given their favorite catnip mouse. After a time, the pet will start associating an oncoming storm with getting to have his favorite thing.
This activity will take the most commitment on your part, but also has the most benefit. Using desensitization, the animal’s response is decreased while he is exposed to increasing levels of the fear-producing stimulus. For noise phobias, the animal is taught to be calm when the noise level is low, and then the noise level is gradually increased. This process is generally more successful in dogs than cats. To desensitize a pet to thunderstorms:
- Obtain a commercial tape or CD of a storm. Amazon has Victoria Stillwell CDs for noise phobia. Play the recording at normal volume to determine if it will induce the fear response. If it does, continue with the desensitization; if not, you will need to obtain a different recording. For some animals, a recording alone may not work, since there may be a combination of occurrences that provokes fear, e.g.; thunder plus lightning or changes in barometric pressure. For these animals, darkening the room and adding strobe lights may more closely mimic the storm, and may need to be included in the desensitization process.
- Play the recording at a volume low enough that the pet is aware of the sound, but it does not induce a fear response. For instance, the ears may be cocked towards the source of the sound, but you still have the pet’s attention. In some instances, that may mean the pet needs to be in a different room from where the recording is playing. While the recording is playing at the low level, engage the pet in an activity in which you give the commands, such as obedience training or performing tricks. Give food or other rewards during the activity when the pet accomplishes what he is supposed to. If the animal shows signs of fear, stop and try again the next day, playing the recording at an even lower level. It is important that the pet not be rewarded while he is fearful or anxious. Sessions should last about 20 minutes.
- If the animal does not respond fearfully, during the next session, increase the volume slightly. Again, involve the pet in an activity and reward it for obeying commands. Continue increasing the volume gradually for each session. If the pet starts to show fear, decrease the volume. Repeat the sessions in various rooms of the house and with various family members present.
- When the pet does not show fear when the recording is played at a loud volume, you may want to try playing the recording for a short time while you are absent. Gradually increase the time you are gone while the recording is playing.
- When the pet appears to have lost his fear, the sessions can be reduced to one per week. In most instances, these sessions will need to be repeated weekly for the life of the pet.
- During an actual storm, use the same activities and rewards you used in the training sessions.
To increase the chances of successful desensitization, the training process should take place during a time of the year when the actual noise will not be encountered: if the pet is afraid of thunder or fireworks, try desensitization during the winter.
References and Further Reading
Aronson, L. Animal behavior case of the month. A dog was evaluated because of extreme fear. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1999; July 1;215(1):22-4.
Crowell-Davis, SL. Treating storm phobias. Presented at the Western Veterinary Conference, February 2003. Las Vegas, Nevada
Horwitz, DF. Prognosis of behavior problems. Presented at the Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference, Ocotber, 2001. Atlantic City, New Jersey.
McCobb, EC; Brown, EA; Damiani, K; Dodman, NH. Thunderstorm phobia in dogs: an Internet survey of 69 cases. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. 2001; July-Aug;37(4):319-24.
Overall, KL. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St. Louis, MO; Mosby Year Book Inc., 1997.
Overall, KL; Dunham, AE; Frank, D. Frequency of nonspecific clinical signs in dogs with separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and noise phobia, alone or in combination. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2001; August 15;219(4):467-73
These blog comments, although based in scientific research, reflect professional opinion only and are accurate and true to the best of our knowledge. They are for informational purposes and do not constitute treatment advice, nor should it take the place of seeking medical attention and a diagnosis from a trained professional. We reserve the right to change these blog comments if/as new research emerges. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which your pet requires medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.