Why Does Your Dog Turn Tail At Thunderstorms?

If your dog is fearful of storms with thunder, lightning, hail, or high winds, you’re not alone. There are no statistics on the numbers of pets with storm phobia–or to give the fear its scientific name, astraphobia–but it’s likely that the prevalence of this type of noise sensitivity in dogs is 20 percent or higher, says Pamela Perry, DVM, a behavior resident at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York.

Most of us, including our pets, startle when we hear loud noises unexpectedly, especially if accompanied by a bolt of lightning or torrential rain. The typical response is to recover quickly from being startled, but some dogs (and humans) have a genetic predisposition to anxiety or fear.

“There’s something about their makeup that makes their thresholds for developing this, or their ability to recover, lower than that of other animals,” says Lore Haug, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist who practices at Texas Veterinary Behavior Services in Sugar Land.

Dogs can develop storm phobias through lack of habituation, genetics, and sensitization. For instance, puppies who grow up in California, where thunderstorms are rare, and later in life move to Florida, arguably the thunderstorm capital of the United States, are not habituated to the sound, smell, and flashing lightning of thunderstorms. Combine that with a possible hereditary predisposition to fear or anxiety (especially common in some hunting and herding breeds), and you have a thunderstorm phobia in the making.

Thunderstorm phobias can also develop from a single traumatic incident, such as being home alone or outdoors when a storm hits. Trauma can be compounded if the dog is genetically predisposed to being fearful.

More commonly, though, dogs become what’s called sensitized to storms. They may show little reaction at first, maybe trembling when a storm occurs but nothing more obvious. When thunderstorm season—which typically runs between May and October, depending on the region—is over, they relax. Then the next storm season rolls around, and the fear recurs, becoming greater. Over time, fear develops through repeated exposure to thunderstorms, which are unpredictable and impossible to escape.

“That fear response becomes classically conditioned,” says veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta, who practices at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach. “Maybe the first storm isn’t traumatic, but over time the fear response becomes triggered by elements of the storm. That is probably one of the reasons why most animals are presented to us in middle age for this problem.”

The good news is that your dog doesn’t have to suffer during thunderstorms, or at least not so much. There’s a lot you can do, with the help of your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist, to help manage his fear and provide him with ways to relax. In part two of this post, we’ll explore how to do that.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.