Over the past few years my dog, CJ, has gradually developed thunderstorm anxiety. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it all started, but one day I happened to notice him slinking off into the bathroom. He just went in there and calmly laid on the floor. I figured maybe he was hot and the cool, tile floor in the bathroom felt good. Then, about 10 minutes later it started to storm. Once the storm was over, CJ came out of the bathroom and acted completely normal. Since I first noticed this behavior, I started to pay very close attention to him when I knew thunderstorms were approaching. Sure enough, about 10 minutes before the storm was overhead, CJ would make his way into the bathroom.
His behavior continued to change as time progressed. CJ would still slink off into the bathroom, but occasionally would start to pant and quiver. One night he made his way into the bathtub and was frantically digging at the bottom of the basin.
There was no doubt about it, CJ was suffering from thunderstorm anxiety.
When I finally realized CJ’s anxiety, I made it apparent to the other human member of the household to not make a big deal about a thunderstorm. Just carry on like it’s a normal, run-of-the-mill day. This other human member of the household is a weather professional and inadvertently gets excited about weather phenomena. Since learning about CJ’s behavior changes he has kept his excitement about weather happenings to himself as best he can.
I have made many attempts to distract CJ when I knew a thunderstorm was approaching. I’d try to get him to do some Nose Work, or play “clean up” or some other game we enjoy regularly. Playing seemed to work a little bit, but nothing could distract him once the storm was sitting right on top of us. Not even food or treats.
What causes thunderstorm anxiety? Could it be the loud thunderclaps that scare the dogs? Perhaps. (C.J. does not react to other loud noises, such as fireworks or gunshots.) Could it be the lightning flashes? Perhaps the electromagnetic charge of the lightning is stimulating his skin or hair in a way that is uncomfortable. Maybe it has something to do with the change in pressure of the atmosphere, or the changes in air flow. Could that be affecting his ears or sinus cavities? Perhaps the sound of debris rustling with the changes in wind speed and direction is making him nervous.
There are so many variables to consider when it come to thunderstorms that it is nearly impossible to detect the exact trigger for your pet. Chances are that it is not one single variable, but a combination of any or all of those mentioned, and more. And one fact about thunderstorm anxiety is that it tends to worsen with age. So, what to do?
First and foremost, discuss your pet’s behavior with your veterinarian. Let your vet know when your pet seems to show signs of anxiety (is it well before a storm, in the midst of the storm, only when there is loud thunder, etc.) and how long it persists (does your pet return to normal after the lightning ceases, the next day, etc.). You and your veterinarian can then come up with a plan for your dog, which may include counterconditioning techniques with or without the aid of anti-anxiety medications or sedatives.
What seems to be working for C.J. is the combination of a Thundershirt, distraction with games, and a mild sedative called Sileo. The Thundershirt applies constant, comfortable pressure to your dog’s body which seems to have a calming effect (think about swaddling an infant). I have had good results with the Thundershirt alone only during very mild storms of short duration. Sileo is an oromucousal gel that contains a minute amount of a sedative medication that helps calm your dog. It has never made C.J. drowsy or sedate in any way. It just seems to reduce his reactivity to storms. I have used it with and without the Thundershirt with excellent results!
This is what has worked for C.J. It does not mean it will work for your dog. Talk to your veterinarian to find the right product or combination of products to help curb your dog’s thunderstorm phobia. Your dog with thank you for it!