Why are Dogs Scared of Thunder?
Like fireworks, thunder is loud, unpredictable and often brings unexpected flashes of light. There are many reasons dogs may have astraphobia, or “thunder phobia,” though.
Astraphobia can affect both humans and animals. See why dogs are scared of thunder and what you can do to ease your dog’s storm anxiety below.
Why are Dogs Afraid of Thunder?
According to behavior scientist Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD, “depending on a dog’s personality and past experiences, different parts of a thunderstorm can cause fear or anxiety.” As with fireworks, it could be the noise or the flashes of lights.
“There’s usually more buildup before a thunderstorm than with fireworks (e.g., changes in the barometric pressure, high winds, rain, hail and/or lightning), thus dogs might learn to expect thunder,” she adds. This can cause anxiety before the storm even hits.
Dogs can sense the changes in air pressure or, because they have more sensitive hearing, may hear the low-frequency rumblings of thunder long before humans can.
According to some veterinarians, dogs may also experience small static shocks from the build-up of static electricity that accompanies thunderstorms.*
Signs Your Dog is Scared of Thunder
During a storm, you may find your dog is scared of thunder and shaking or trembling. Some dogs will run for cover at the first sign of thunder, while others may bark or pace back and forth during a storm. One sign your dog is feeling anxious during a storm is excessive panting during thunderstorms. “Spontaneous panting, or panting when not hot or exercising, is a sign of stress or anxiety for dogs,” explains Dr. McGowan.
If your dog seems scared of thunder, it’s helpful to learn strategies to calm him in the moment, and to keep him calm when future storms arise.
How to Calm Dogs During Storms
There are several strategies for calming a dog during a storm.
- Stay Calm: The best thing to do is to remain calm around your dog during a thunderstorm. Making a big fuss around the dog only proves to him that there is a good reason to panic. “Dogs look to us for reassurance. So, showing them we are calm and relaxed is likely to help the dog understand there is no real danger,” explains Dr. McGowan.
- Create a Safe Space: Give your dog a safe indoor space to go when he’s scared. “If your dog is crate-trained, he may feel most secure in his crate with a nice chew toy to occupy his time,” she says. Cover wire crates with a blanket to help absorb the sound and leave the door open so he doesn’t feel trapped. If your dog doesn’t have a crate or isn’t used to it, try creating a safe place elsewhere. “Scope out a calm place in your home where you can set up your dog’s bed during the thunderstorm. Consider giving him a treat-stuffed toy to make the occasion positive,” she recommends. Close the blinds or curtains of any windows so he can’t see outside.
- Distract Him: If your dog is afraid of thunder, turn on the TV or calming music to drown out the noise. If he’s feeling playful, grab his toys and have some fun with him. Be sure to reward him with his favorite treats, too. “Really, do what you can to create positive associations with the sound of thunder,” suggests Dr. McGowan.
- Prepare for the Next Storm: Try desensitizing your dog to the sounds of thunder. Play those sounds quietly in the background as you play games or give him treats. “Do this around the time when good things happen, like dinner, play time or going for a walk,” explains Dr. McGowan. “If your dog is reacting in a positive manner, then you can gradually increase the volume of the noises at a pace that your dog is comfortable with.” Over the course of a few weeks to months, this can help him associate the sounds of thunderstorms with happy times.
- Talk to Your Veterinarian: Your veterinarian is the best person to talk to when it comes to dogs and thunder. They may recommend a vest, shirt or wrap that applies light, constant compression. This can help alleviate anxiety (similar to calming a baby with swaddling). If your dog’s storm anxiety is severe, ask your veterinarian for alternative remedies to help him feel calmer. They may recommend a product like Calming Care, particularly if you live in an area prone to thunderstorms.
Remember to practice positive reinforcement with your dog. Don’t scold or punish him for his thunder phobia—his behavior is the result of fear, not disobedience. Teaching your dog new and pleasant associations is the best way to calm a dog during a storm.
*N. Cottam, N. Dodman, 2009. Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 119 78 to 84.