Dear Dr. Thompson: I have a 10-year-old, 70-pound mutt who is mostly black lab. Recently during thunderstorms or lightning storms, he has become panicked and fearful.
He has never done this before and I am wondering why he would start and what I can do to help him. He begins the behavior before I even hear the thunder or see the lightning and usually in the middle of the night when the house is quiet.
I feel for both of you after such an active weather month. Anxiety or fear of loud noises is not unusual in dogs, which is exacerbated this time of year by thunderstorms and fireworks. The sounds are difficult to understand and even at his age it can elevate to the level of a debilitating phobia.
Most dogs will begin to pace, shake, or hide at the first sound of a storm or firework.
You mention he notices the storms before you hear anything. He may be sensitized to the noise or picks up on subtle changes triggering his fear.
For mild behavior, diversions like food or play may be enough to comfort your dog. Background noise or smells can also help. Lavender or canine pheromone sprays have been shown in studies to help with low-grade anxieties. Hiding comforts some dogs and allowing access to these areas is helpful as well.
For more serious phobias, anti-anxiety medications may help decrease his fears over time. A family of drugs called benzodiazepines are fast-acting and can be given at the first sign of a storm or if fireworks are anticipated that evening. These are not intended to completely sedate your dog, but they help with the anxiety.
Dogs with more serious phobias may need daily medication with drugs like clomipramine or fluoxetine during storm season. These can be supplemented with fast-acting medications as well.
There are programs with the sounds of storms or fireworks that can be played for your dog in a controlled setting which can be linked to pleasant outcomes like play, affection, or food.
This process, called habituation, can eventually decrease your dog’s fearful response. This is a heartbreaking condition which requires a gentle approach so do not hesitate to enlist your veterinarian for help with this situation.
Good luck and hopefully we will have a quiet stretch of weather.
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