Westbury Animal Hospital
713.723.3666 · 4917 S. Willow Dr. Houston, Texas 77035 

Alex Betzen, DVM

            There’s an old saying, “Spring showers bring May flowers.”  But, for some pets, those spring showers can represent a significant source of stress and anxiety.  Thunderstorm phobia is a common manifestation of noise sensitivities in dogs.  Thunderstorms aren’t the only sounds that make dogs nervous.  We can also see it with fireworks, vacuums, engine noises and gunshots.  What all of these sounds have in common is that they are loud, lack a specific pattern and are impulsive

            Before we really get started, we should take a moment to recognize that responding to noise is a healthy response.  It was advantageous for our ancestors to respond to loud, startling noises.  I’m sure that all of us can think about a loud noise that scared us in the last several months, horror movies make a living on those noises!  The difference is that one should quickly notice that the noise isn’t a threat, even if the sound is continuous.  This would be called habituation.  The second or third time you start your car, you know that the engine noise is coming and that it isn’t going to harm you.

            Dogs with noise phobias have a difficult time making the leap to habituation.  Like many anxiety disorders in dogs, we can see a variety of different behaviors.  Most commonly dogs will show one of the following: pacing, panting, drooling/salivating, trembling/shaking, destructive behaviors (destroying the crate, doors, floors, walls, blankets/towels, etc.), barking, whining or howling, inability to settle down, defecating, urinating or vomiting, self-injury, and escape behaviors (trying to climb walls, dart outdoors, go through windows, etc.).

            Fortunately, we can make them better.  When training a dog for any behavior, punishment will not lead to as quick of learning or last nearly as long as rewarding positive behavior.  This is never truer than with a scared or anxious dog.  Try to imagine that you are scared beyond belief and someone is yelling at you,

            “Get it together!”

            “Stop chewing on the couch!”

            “Don’t destroy the crate, towel, bowl, toy, etc.!”

Or worse yet, physically harming you.  Can you image that your anxiety may get worse.  Mine certainly would!  These are dogs that need us to be calm, patient and work with them in a variety of different ways. 

Many people consider placing their dog with thunderstorm phobias with a dog that doesn’t have thunderstorm phobias.  It has been well documented that when noise phobic dogs are housed with dogs without noise phobias, the dogs that have noise phobias are not improved.  But, we already knew this right?  If you’re afraid of spiders and living with someone that doesn’t have arachnophobia, you’re still afraid of spiders when one scurries across the floor!

            The first treatment for noise phobias is prevention.  If you have a puppy, expose them to all sorts of noises at a young age.  The key is to keep it fun.  During a thunderstorm, play with your puppy or feed the favorite treat.  You could even purchase an audio recording of a thunderstorm and play it at a soft level while playing with your puppy.  This goes the same for the vacuum cleaner, car engines, blenders, or any other loud noises.

            For dogs with existing noise phobias, the treatment will be similar but needs to be a little different.  Dogs may need a zen environment with little sound stimulation.  Consider a closet at the center of the house.  Close the windows and curtains to reduce the visual stimulus (lightning) from scaring your pet.  Play calming sounds such as classical music or white noise (not CDs of storms or Scandinavian death metal!). 

            Not all pets will respond well to these attempts, so consider going for a walk in the rain, which may help some dogs.  Play with a favorite toy, treat, or game.  You could also practice known commands such as sit and stay.  If your pet is more comfortable in their crate, let them stay there.  Dogs may associate being leashed with a pleasant walk, so consider leashing your pet even if you’re staying inside.

            ALL of these attempts to calm your dog should be stopped immediately if they start looking more anxious because of our attempts to calm them.  Again, punishment is never appropriate for a scared or anxious dog.  You may also want to discuss your pet’s anxiety with your veterinarian.  There are a variety of different anti-anxiety medications that may be appropriate for your pet as well as dog appeasing pheromone collars and thundershirts.  With a little training and sometimes medications, we improve noise phobias in dogs and help them understand that they don’t need to be scared of loud noises.

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