Managing Storm and Fireworks Phobia in Dogs [2020]

Last Updated SUN 8 NOVEMBER 2020

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc (Hons)

As pet parents, we often recognise when our pet is displaying signs of stress and anxiety. A common trigger is loud noise like the summer thunderstorm and fireworks. Events like these often lead to all sorts of trembling, pacing, salivating, hiding and destructive behaviour.

So what actually is a noise phobia, why do they develop in our pets, and how can we manage the issue?

Skip to a section:
What is a phobia?
Preparing for the storm
Anxiety Aids
Therapeutic Anxiety Diets
Pheromones
Behaviour Techniques

What is a Storm Phobia?

A phobia is a markedly exaggerated irrational response to a stimulus. They develop from fears, and therefore most likely have a survival benefit for the animal. For example, it's a good thing to fear snakes but it's not good to be phobic of them. The stimulus that triggers a phobic response is often innocuous, as is the case with storm phobias and may be related to a change in barometric pressure or small rain showers.

Why are dogs afraid of thunder and fireworks?

Experts aren't totally sure exactly why dogs are afraid of storms, but suspect the dogs are stressed by some combination of wind, loud noises, barometric pressure changes, the smell of the storm, static electricity, and low-frequency rumbles. Curiously, many dogs seem to sense the storm before it starts and according to one theory, dogs experience painful shocks from static buildup before the storm.

Static buildup in their fur is a possible explanation, says Nicholas Dodman, chief scientific officer at the Centre for Canine Behaviour Studies. Dogs who have experienced static shocks when their noses touch metal objects during a storm may remember this uncomfortable experience and develop a phobia thereafter. This is more common in dogs with a high intelligence and good memory such as the Border Collie, and also in dogs with long or double coats (similar to humans getting a shock when they wear a thick jumper). Their sense of smell could also contribute - it's likely that their incredible noses may just be smelling changes in the air that indicate a storm is coming.

Some common signs that your dog may be feeling anxious include:

  • - Licking lips
  • - Panting
  • - Shaking or trembling
  • - Refusing to eat
  • - Continuously moving around
  • - Barking
  • - Aggression
  • - Destroying furniture
  • - Urinating in an inappropriate place

How To Manage Storm Phobia

How can we help our precious pets when they suffer from storm phobias? Behavioural issues including phobias in pets are complex and unfortunately, there's no quick fix. This means that in most cases, we need to combine a variety of techniques.

1. Predicting the Storm

Monitoring weather websites and apps during the storm season can allow you to predict to some degree the risky times for your dog. It is also beneficial to check your local council's website for upcoming fireworks events.

In preparation for storms or fireworks, you can bring them inside and into a safe area where they can't injure themselves. Ideally, this safe haven is a quiet, darkened room with no sharp objects or furniture that may cause injury. If your dog has a particular area they choose to go to during these times, it's best to allow them to do so as long as it's safe.

2. A Therapeutic Anxiety Diet

For chronic anxiety sufferers, a change to a therapeutic diet may be the perfect solution. Royal Canin Relax Care is a tasty diet infused with fish hydrolysate, a natural supplement derived from fish protein. This ingredient has been demonstrated to help manage stress in dogs. When fed over a period of 6 weeks, Royal Canin Relax Care was demonstrated to help over 44% of dogs behave normally despite changing situations in an urban environment. It is available as a crunchy kibble and a wet food - across different breed sizes (mini, medium, and maxi).

3. Supplements

Nutraceuticals are also may have a calming role for dogs who experience storm phobias. Our top recommendations include:

a) Zylkene - a great natural anxiety supplement available for both cats and dogs. This easy-to-give capsule contains a natural product derived from casein, a protein found in milk. Casein is a molecule known for calming newborns during breastfeeding.

b) Tryptophan based products - You may have also heard of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Interestingly, the precursor to Serotonin has been used in animals to assist with behavioural and anxiety disorders. PAW Blackmore's Complete Calm Chews contains this precursor, Tryptophan, as well as a combination of B vitamins and nutrients which can be used long-term on a daily basis in pets.

c) Hemp-based products - anecdotally, some pet owners find these can help with anxiety. While they don't contain any CBD or THC, hemp seeds are a rich source of omega fatty acids and can have health benefits. From the Hemp Pet range, our top recommendation for anxiety is the Hemp, Hoki and MCT Blend Oil.

d) Chamomile products - may help in some cases. These are available as an easy to administer oral liquid.

4. Anxiety Wraps

Anxiety wraps like the ThunderShirt work by applying gentle constant pressure to the sides of the torso, helping to relieve stress and reduce fearfulness. This concept is similar to 'swaddling', the art of snugly wrapping a baby in a blanket for warmth and security. These body wraps are safe and easy to use, with a range of sizes to suit all dogs.

5. Pheromones

Pheromones are chemical substances that are produced and released into the environment by an animal. These pheromones are unique to each species of animal and play a role in establishing feelings of wellbeing and emotional stability.

Let's take a look at DAP, the dog appeasing pheromone. Female dogs release this pheromone derived from the mammary glands soon after they give birth to help calm her puppies. A synthetic version, called Adaptil is safe, non-sedating and available in both a collar and diffuser formulation. The collar version must fit snug to the skin as body heat causes it to activate. Because the collar stays with the dog all the time, this is a good option for dogs who experience anxiety in multiple situations. The diffuser is ideal for creating a safe location such as a crate or to apply to bedding. It works quickly as soon as the alcohol evaporates and persists for a few hours.

See Calming Pheromones Here

6. Behaviour Modification Techniques

To prepare for the storm season it's also a good idea to start with some basic calming or relaxation training. Dogs adapt very well to a set routine so consistency is key. So what does this involve? Firstly, find a good comfy spot that your dog associates with such as their own bed. Ideally have this placed in their safe haven as mentioned above. Each day, ask your dog to go to their bed and sit. When they do this correctly and calmly, immediately reward them. This may be a treat, a toy or even gentle patting. Perform this calming training a couple of times each day, and you can then use this during a storm so they can be rewarded for remaining calm.

There are also two specific techniques that can be used in conjunction with the above strategies. The first is called Desensitization.. This involves exposing your pet to the scary stimulus at a very low level so that they don't react. For example, if your dog reacts to thunder, you can play a Thunder CD firstly at a very soft level. Gradually over time, increase the intensity as they display an ability to cope. It's important to note that some dogs will have multiple trigger stimuli, complicating the behavioural modification process. For example, some dogs may react to barometric pressure changes as well as thunder and lightning. In these cases, desensitization unfortunately won't be as effective.

The second behavioural modification technique is called Counter Conditioning. This technique involves changing your dog's response to the phobia. For example, playing with your dog or feeding them treats while they are subjected to very low levels of the scary stimulus. This results in 'pairing' of the sound of the thunder and treats/playtime. Similar to desensitisation, the intensity of the sound can be gradually increased over time. It is important to never punish them if they do display fearful behaviour during this time as this will only exacerbate the problem.

7. A Word On Medications

There is certainly a place for prescription medication in some cases of storm phobia so it's always recommended to seek veterinary advice for your pet. These medications will need to be administered at least an hour prior to the storm to be most effective. If your veterinarian determines that your pet's storm phobia may be related to other behavioural issues, they may also prescribe a daily anti-anxiety medication.

Further Reading

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