Is your dog afraid of storms?

Coping with storm phobia is one of the biggest challenges that dog owners face. I’ve had dogs nearly my entire life, but never one who suffered from storm phobia. After I adopted my dog, Jazz, from the Atlanta Humane Society  my world changed. My first clue that something was amiss occurred when a friend of mine who lived down the block dogsat for her over New Years’ Eve. We were out of town, and he left a message on my voicemail saying, “Either someone broke into your house or Jazz had a meltdown.” She didn’t do much in the way of actual damage, but there were some things knocked over, including a bag of marshmallows that were sitting ON TOP of the refrigerator.

I didn’t get to experience it fully until spring storm season hit. There’s nothing like being woken up by a terrified, hyperventilating dog clawing you in the dark. I really had no idea how to deal with her; nothing I did seemed to calm her down. I simply had to try to avoid being shredded and stay awake until the storms passed. Unlike many dogs, she doesn’t seem to have that instinct to “den” herself in. Instead, she tries to climb on top of stuff in an attempt to get to higher ground (or escape.) This is the most problematic issue dealing with dogs that suffer from storm phobia, because they can become very destructive and even harm themselves in their terror. Dogs with severe storm phobia have been known to go through windows and glass doors.

It’s not always possible to be home every time a storm hits, so we have endured bouts of destructive behavior. More than once, the house looked like a crime scene. It’s very frustrating and heartbreaking, but Jazz is otherwise a great dog – sweet, obedient and good with the kids. Placing her up for adoption with another family wouldn’t work because I would just be passing the problem on to someone else. Besides, she’s part of our family! And it’s not just thunderstorms that can set her off. When the battery on the smoke detectors starts to go, it emits a high-pitched beep, and that can set her off too.

I consulted Dr. William Draper of The Village Vets about the issue. He and his staff were great about helping me identify different treatments and approaches that might be useful. Among the things I tried were:

  • Anxiety Wrap (or Thundershirt)
  • DAP (dog appeasing pheremones)
  • Storm desensitization sound therapy
  • Rescue Remedy for dogs (do not use the human version!)
  • Medication (anti-anxiety and/or sedatives)
  • Reiki (hands-on energy healing)
  • Distraction with special treats or toys

Ultimately, here is what worked for us. It’s not ideal, but she’s my fur kid and I hate to see her suffer just as much as anyone else I love. I’ve pretty much become addicted to The Weather Channel, so that I know when storms are forecast. Occasionally, one will pop up and surprise us but usually I have enough advance warning to change my plans, be home, or make sure someone else is at home. On the nights when it does storm, my husband and I will take turns staying up with her in the living room. We turn on all the lights and the TV to distract her. We put her leash on, because for whatever reason, she feels more secure when it’s attached. Using special treats helps momentarily but if she is really anxious, she doesn’t care if there’s a peanut butter-smeared steak in the middle of the floor!

I am a Reiki Teacher, and I will give Jazz Reiki if she seems receptive to it. Sometimes the sensation is soothing to her; other times, it makes her uneasy. (It is energy, after all, as are the sound waves from thunder and electrical impulses from lightning. Sometimes all of it is just too much for her.) When she is receptive to it, she will actually calm down rather quickly and lay at my feet. At least it is one tool I can use that is effective some of the time.

We also give Jazz a dose of Acepromazine, a veterinary sedative, at least 30 minutes before storms roll in. I don’t give her the full recommended dose because otherwise she loses control of her bladder and bowels. The amount I do give is enough to slow her down enough that along with the other distractions, she is relatively calm. She may still tremble, pant or try to climb into my lap a few times (nothing like a 45 lb. lapdog!) but that’s a big improvement over a completely wild-eyed, terrified animal exhibiting escape behaviors.

If your dog has storm anxiety, it’s worth trying one or more of these methods in combination to see what works. Dogs with milder cases of anxiety may respond well to some of these options. For a dog with more severe storm anxiety, you may need to work closely with your vet to come up with a medication plan, as well as make some lifestyle changes to accommodate their needs during those times.

(Photo credit: snowpeak on Flickr)

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