It can be heartbreaking to watch: Even before the first clap of thunder, otherwise well-behaved dogs begin to pace, pant, cling to their owners, hide in the closet, or jam themselves behind the toilet. In severe cases, they'll claw through drywall, chew carpets, or break through windows in their escalating panic.
Thunderstorm phobia in dogs is real, not uncommon, and shouldn't be ignored, experts say.
The word “compulsive” describes the repetitive, irresistible urge to perform a behavior. A dog who displays compulsive behavior repeatedly performs one or more behaviors over and over, to the extent that it interferes with his normal life. The behavior he’s doing doesn’t seem to have any purpose, but he’s compelled to do it anyway. Some dogs will spend almost all their waking hours engaging in repetitive behaviors. They might lose weight, suffer from exhaustion and even physically injure themselves...
"Most of the time they don't grow out of it on their own, and many will get worse with time if nothing is done," says Matt Peuser, DVM, a veterinarian at Olathe Animal Hospital in Kansas.
Why does storm phobia happen, and what can you do if your dog suffers from it?
Storm Phobia Triggers
Veterinarians don't know all the triggers but suspect the dogs are set off by some combination of wind, thunder, lightning, barometric pressure changes, static electricity, and low-frequency rumbles preceding a storm that humans can't hear. According to one theory, dogs experience painful shocks from static buildup before the storm.
The anxiety often gets worse throughout the season as storms become more frequent.
Dogs often start having storm-related panic attacks seemingly out of nowhere, says Barbara L. Sherman, PhD, DVM, associate professor of veterinary behavior at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a past president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
"Owners come in and say, 'He wasn't like this last year," Sherman tells WebMD. "It's really heart wrenching to see these dogs that are usually calm companions become severely affected by thunderstorms."
Herding breeds, such as border collies, may be predisposed to the problem, according to an Internet survey by Tufts University researchers. Dogs with other fearful behaviors, such as separation anxiety, also seem more prone to panic.
Some dogs with storm phobia are also frightened of other loud noises, such as fireworks or gunshots, but others are only afraid of storms.
What to do? There's no easy fix, and unless your dog is only mildly affected, it can be difficult to treat, vets say. But there are lots of tools to reduce your dog's distress during storm season: