Why Are Dogs Scared of Thunder? Our Expert Explains the Possible Causes
It's simply heartbreaking to watch your normally happy and engaged pupper cowering in a corner every time they hear a loud noise, especially the resounding booms during a thunderstorm. Some poor pooches even try to do all they can to escape what they don't understand, and often end up hurting themselves as a result.
So why are dogs scared of thunder? Any number of factors contribute to this behavior. Initially, your main focus is to try to soothe your canine pal. Then, you might work with an animal behavior specialist to discover the primary contributing cause, and get professional advice about how to address it. For instance, the pro might teach you how to gradually desensitize your pet to prevent future distress.
Why Are Dogs Scared of Thunder?
Some dog breeds are a little timid or nervous by nature, and need extra coaxing and proper socialization to help them overcome situational anxiety—especially in unfamiliar places or around new people. Anxiety as a separate condition occurs, too, often because of genetics, traumatic events, and different life experiences.
But just like humans, dogs can also develop phobias. Oxford Dictionary indicates that phobia is often defined as "an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something." For example, some puppies stop dead in their tracks and resist climbing stairs, as they don't know how to navigate this funky, uneven surface. While one doggo might enjoy chomping on squeaky toys, another pup in the same household can't stand the sound of them.
According to Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB, CPDT-KA, and owner of Behavior Solutions, many dogs have a noise phobia. "It's a reaction to a noise that's so intense and out of context that it interferes with the dog's normal functioning," she says. "It's a disproportionate response and often persists long after the 'threat' is gone."
So just how many dogs have a noise phobia? Sinn, who's also a member of the Daily Paws Advisory Board, states that depending on the research, some estimates are as high as 50 percent.
Astraphobia is the fear of thunder and lightning. Your pooch may also be fearful of other loud—and especially sudden—sounds such as:
- Vacuum cleaners
- Smoke detectors
- Gun shots
- Raised voices
- Mechanical sounds and engines
- Strong wind
- Vehicle backfires
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"Ask yourself: Which of these things causes your dog to react, and how profound of a reaction do they have?" Sinn says. Basically, their reaction is a protective mechanism to a signal there's something to be worried about.
And while the ruckus of a vacuum droning on may frighten your dog, Sinn adds research finds that non-continuous sounds with periods of silence are actually more disturbing.
Are Some Dogs More Susceptible to Being Scared of Thunder?
Although this fear is most apparent in dogs who are 1 to 5 years old, Sinn says it can also be seen in pups as young as 9 weeks of age. "I can't emphasize enough that if steps aren't taken to help the dog mitigate his or her concerns, they'll worsen over time," Sinn says.
Interestingly, she adds that working dogs, especially herding breeds and hounds, are most commonly affected. "We don't have proof of this yet, but [assumptions] indicate there might be a genetic component to this," Sinn says. As an example, she cites annual owner surveys conducted by the American Association of Border Collies reveal that noise sensitivity and noise phobia among this breed is as high as 40 percent.
Young pups who aren't well-socialized to accept different sounds and situations, as well as dogs adopted from shelters and rescues, might also be more at risk. Additionally, Sinn says when an older dog develops a new fear of thunder, it might be an indication of untreated musculoskeletal chronic pain. In many cases, once they receive proper treatment, their fear dissipates.
Symptoms of Dog Thunderstorm Anxiety and Fear
If your best four-pawed pal is noise phobic, Sinn says they might display any number of the following signs:
- Inhibition of behavior, such as hiding, whining, panting, and drooling
- Expression of behavior, including attention-seeking, inability to be distracted or settle down, pacing, shaking, bolting, running, escaping, hypervigilance, not eating, and accidental urination and defecation
- Destructive behavior
- Injury to themselves and others
How to Help Calm a Dog During a Storm
As much as we'd like to believe that simply our presence is enough to ease our pupper's fear, they often react to any personality changes we display—which requires us to have a different kind of awareness.
"What if your dog is worried? You don't want your own behavior to become a cue that bad things are about to happen," Sinn says. "For example, some dogs are well aware of when you start to frantically check your phone on the weather app with the sight of an upcoming storm. Running around the house can signal to them that it's something to be worried about."
Sinn also recommends that you not fuss excessively over your dog during a storm—this can actually reinforce their fear. This doesn't mean you can't snuggle with them or provide comfort, but again, your response to the situation influences theirs. "If they're indulging in really heavy-duty attention seeking, try to ignore it. If possible, try to distract them."
If your pup will engage with you during a storm, she advises trying to shift their emotional response to the event. Maybe go to a smaller room, close the blinds, and then break out all their favorite toys—Sinn calls this a "thunderstorm party." Doing something like this changes your pup's perception of the noise and hopefully, they'll no longer associate it with impending doom.
So try this a few times. If it doesn't work with your pup, there are other short-term methods that might help.
Home Remedies for Dogs Scared of Thunder
Unfortunately, the more noises your poor pup reacts to, the harder it is to desensitize and counter-condition them to what triggers their fear. They can just never catch a break, especially if you live in an area where thunderstorms are more frequent, such as the Gulf Coast, Southeastern United States, and Great Plains region.
So until you have the chance to work with an animal behaviorist, Sinn recommends the following home remedies to help your pooch ride out the storm.
A Safe Den
Identify a cozy spot in your house where your dog can hunker down and feel secure. This might be in a bathroom, under the bed, or in the little keyhole area of a desk—any place away from windows. Make the room dark and add some soft bedding they can burrow into if need be. Sinn says some people use a cuddle cave (also called a snuggle sack) to help with this, which not only muffles thunder but also minimizes how they see flashes of lightning.
Another way to distract from the loud noises is to provide soothing alternatives, such as a white noise machine, relaxing classical music, or soundtracks designed specifically for canines, such as Through a Dog's Ear or Relaxing Music for Dogs.
Sinn says current research has been favorable for pheromone products. A pup's scent receptors transmit these chemical signals to their brain and it's a "downshift or calming signal," helping to reduce noise sensitivity. Pheromones usually have a better impact if introduced when you first notice symptoms of your dog being scared of thunder—they usually don't work as well if they're already quite frightened or becoming destructive.
You'll find products such as Adaptil and others in the form of diffusers, sprays, wipes, and special collars.
You've probably heard of thunder shirts, anti-static capes, and other swaddling wraps for dogs. Sinn notes that papers to date haven't shown a significant response, and study results are mixed on their effectiveness. But, they're a "no harm, no foul" option you're welcome to try.
Certain forms of massage can actually be helpful, especially if a dog scared of thunder is shaking. A great approach, Sinn says, is Linda Tellington-Jones' TTouch method, which combines deliberate fingerpad touches and slow, long strokes with a special cue such as "chill" or "relax" or "calm." This is another great application to help reduce your pup's rising cortisol—the stress hormone—response.
If you've not tried TTouch before, this video demonstrates the technique.
Supplements and Natural Remedies
Sinn says that while there are some supplements for anxiety on the market, there's little to report on their effectiveness for noise sensitivity. One exception might be Anxitane which, in small studies geared specifically for storm phobia, has provided better results. Some pet parents report success with homeopathic products like Rescue Remedy.
There are certain pet foods that promote having a more calming effect. "The thought behind them is that insulin production is stimulated by carbohydrates, which can help increase serotonin level and improve mood," Sinn says. Royal Canin Calm tested positively on dogs under 35 pounds with anxiety, but she adds it wasn't tested on those with noise phobia. Of course, before changing your pup's diet, consult your veterinarian.
Finally, another conversation to have with your vet is whether medication should be an additional dog thunderstorm anxiety treatment if your pup doesn't respond to any of the other coping mechanisms. There are several prescription products on the market that ease anxiety in dogs—some of these are fast-acting and can be administered at the first signs of fear.