Storm Phobia in Pets
By Guest Author, Dr. Tom Farrington, MVB MRCVS VetMFHom
Phobias are excessive, unreasonable and intense fears of objects or situations that usually pose little or no actual danger. In the case of storm phobias, pets display both nervous and behavioral signs that may worsen as a storm intensifies. Nervous phobia signs include one or more of panting, shaking, dilated pupils, excessive salivation, and loss of bladder control, bowel control, or both (see Table). Behavioral signs can be as simple as whining or crying, and can also include obsessive seeking of human companionship for comfort and reassurance or just to be in the vicinity of the owner. Hiding is common in storm phobic dogs and is the most common sign seen in cats. Selected hiding places are often dark and den-like (for instance a kennel, closet, or behind furniture). For reasons not fully understood, some dogs favor hiding in a bathroom, perhaps because ionized bathroom air is more calming. Frantic barking, destruction, and attempts to escape, are also described in storm phobic dogs.
Behavioral and nervous signs that dogs and cats may show when storms threaten or are in process:
• Hiding (most common sign in cats)
• Dilated pupils
• Compulsive seeking of the owner’s company
• Excessive salivation (drooling)
• Trembling or shaking
• Ignoring commands
• Vocalizing (barking, howling, meowing)
• Trying to escape - includes digging, running away, biting and scratching at doors
• Urinating & Defecating
It is more accurate to describe the condition as storm, rather than thunderstorm, phobia because the phobia can develop in the absence of thunder, arising in response to one or more of a combination of rain, sleet, strong wind, changes in illumination from lightning flashes, and even snow. Some dogs may begin to show behavioral signs of storm phobia well before a storm actually arrives, or even when there is a nearby storm of which the owner is unaware. These signs may be restlessness, pacing or whining and could be a response to a sudden drop in barometric (air) pressure or change in the electrical charge of the air.
The more frequently a pet reacts to the anxiety-provoking stimulus, the worse and more rapid the response may become, so the owner is faced with a growing problem with no easy solution. These fear behaviors can escalate to panic, causing dogs to be seriously injured in their attempts to escape what they perceive to be severe danger. Phobic dogs have been known to break through screened or glass doors or windows. Household damage also results from the pet biting and scratching doors, carpets, drapes, furniture and other items.
Dogs rescued from shelters may be at greater risk than non-rescue dogs for developing storm phobias. Herding dogs, particularly German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers appear to be over-represented among dogs with various phobias, perhaps linked to their inherently anxious temperaments. Although many dogs with storm phobias do not have any other anxiety-related problems, it is quite common for storm phobia to be accompanied by separation anxiety, and there may also be a phobia of loud noises. Dogs with fearful personalities are predisposed to storm phobias which can result from genetics, from early aversive experiences or from inadequate socialization as puppies. Dogs with well adjusted temperaments and no history of early changes in home or aversive experiences can also be affected. Phobic signs are typically first seen in dogs between 1 and 5 years of age, although many dogs may be less than 12 months old at the time the problem begins.
Obviously upsetting for the pet, storm phobias are a problem from an animal welfare perspective. Additionally, the behavior shown by the pet, especially dogs, is extremely upsetting for owners, who are distressed by their pet’s anxiety and by the resulting damage inflicted on their homes. Failure to effectively manage these phobias can have an unfortunate effect on the owner-pet bond and lead to pet abandonment, placement in a shelter or alternate home or even, in the severest cases, to euthanasia.
Storm phobia is considered a particularly difficult fear to treat. Typically in behavioral problems, desensitization is very helpful. Desensitization involves repeatedly exposing the pet to the threatening stimulus at a controlled level that is below the threshold that initiates the phobia. As the pet becomes accustomed to the low-level threat, exposure is repeated at gradually increasing levels in a manner that does not produce the signs of phobia. However, owners who live in areas where storms are common may be unable to isolate their pet from storms during the desensitization period, and so desensitization alone is not adequate.
There are no pharmacologic treatments registered to treat storm phobias. Some drugs have been tried off-label, including benzodiapines and acepromazine, although the latter may sometimes make the signs worse. Anti-anxiety drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (eg fluoxetine) and tricyclic antidepressants (clomipramine) have also been used, but have a drawback in that treatment must begin 2 or more weeks before the phobia-initiating stimulus. All drugs carry a risk of side effects, typically excessive sedation, and some may cause vomiting and other problems. In treating storm phobia, drug adverse effects may be avoided by using alternative therapies, such as homeopathic remedies or dog appeasing pheromone (DAP).
DAP is a synthetic mixture of compounds that match post-partum secretions of the sebaceous glands, and are delivered by an electronic diffuser. Homeopathy involves giving very small doses of remedies that would produce the same or similar symptoms of illness in healthy pets if they were given in larger doses. A recent survey of owners using a homeopathic product (HomeoPet Anxiety) found a positive response in 34 of 36 (94.4%) dogs treated for storm phobia (see Figure 1). An important benefit that emerged in the survey was that there were no adverse reactions to the homeopathic remedy. This safety profile, combined with the favorable post treatment alleviation in signs of phobia, may account for the high level of client satisfaction that has been reported with HomeoPet Anxiety.
Figure 1. Percentage of storm phobic dogs in levels of improvement after treatment with HomeoPet Anxiety. Grading was completed by each dog’s owner on a scale of -5 (much worse) to 0 (no change) to +5 (much better or completely cured).
Please Note: Since the writing of this article, HomeoPet has developed HomeoPet Pro Storm Stress, a faster-acting product designed specifically for storm phobia in pets.
References and Additional Reading:Crowell-Davis SL, Seibert LM, Sung W, Parthasarathy V, Curtis TM. Use of clomipramine, alprazolam, and behavior modification for treatment of stormphobia in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003 Mar 15;222(6):744-8.McCobb EC, Brown EA, Damiani K, Dodman NH. Thunderstorm phobia in dogs: an Internet survey of 69 cases. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2001 Jul-Aug;37(4):319-24.Overall KL, Dunham AE, Frank D. Frequency of nonspecific clinical signs in dogs with separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and noise phobia, alone or in combination. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001 Aug 15;219(4):467-73.Simpson BS, Papich MG.Pharmacologic management in veterinary behavioral medicine. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2003 Mar;33(2):365-404, vii.