of Thunderstorms and Noise Phobias
Frisby, DVM, MS
Veterinary Services Department, Drs.
Foster & Smith, Inc.
causes fear of storms and other noises?
is unknown why some pets become afraid of noises; it
is a common problem in dogs, but less so in cats. The
fear can soon become a phobia, which is defined as a
persistent, excessive, and irrational fear response.
In the case of thunderstorms, pets may also be fearful
of storm-associated events such as a change in barometric
pressure, lightning, electrostatic disturbances, and
even smells associated with the storms. Noise phobias
can include fear of thunderstorms, firecrackers, gunshots,
and even the sound of birds.
recent study has found that certain breeds have an above
average risk of developing noise phobias. These include
some of the working and sporting breeds such as Collies,
German Shepherds, Beagles, and Basset Hounds. This survey
was quite small, however, and more research needs to
be done in this area. The study also found that dogs
separation anxiety were
more likely to also have noise and thunderstorm phobias.
noise phobia may be traced to a particular bad experience
of a noise, but often, no triggering event can be ascertained.
In almost all instances, the fear of noises and storms
escalates, worsening with each exposure. Soon the pet
may become fearful of similar sounds or events associated
with the noise. For example, a pet afraid of thunder
may also become afraid of rain, or a dog afraid of gunshots
may show fear at the mere sight of a hunting rifle.
owner's attitude can influence the severity of the fear.
For instance, if owners themselves are nervous during
storms, noise phobias in their pets may occur more often
or become more severe. Similarly, if the owner attempts
to comfort the animal, the animal interprets it as confirming
there really is something to be afraid of. The petting
or comforting is really positive reinforcement of an
are the signs of noise phobia?
animals may display different signs of noise phobias
(most common sign in cats)
to escape (digging, jumping through windows or going
through walls, running away)
listening to commands
(barking or meowing)
with a veterinarian experienced in animal behavior problems,
and/or an animal behaviorist if your pet is showing
signs of noise phobia. They can help develop a treatment
plan for your pet.
is noise phobia treated?
is no "cure" for noise phobia, but there are ways to
try to reduce the fear. First, refrain from giving rewards
or punishment. This is extremely important. Petting,
consoling, or even saying, "It's OK," may be interpreted
by the pet as a reward for the fearful response. In
the event of comforting a dog during a storm, for example,
it may signal to the pet that the storm really is something
he should be afraid of. Similarly, the pet should not
be punished for showing fear. This will only increase
his anxiety level. Usually treatment includes three
other facets: medications, changing the environment,
and behavior modification.
Medications may be given individually
or in combination. In some instances, the medication
may be administered during an entire thunderstorm season.
Others may be given when a storm or noisy event (Fourth
of July fireworks) is expected. A common protocol is
to give amitriptyline during the storm season, and valium
when a storm is predicted. The valium or other quick-acting
medication needs to be given prior to the development
of any behavioral or physical signs of anxiety. If there
is a chance of a storm predicted for the afternoon,
the pet should start receiving the valium or similar
medication in the morning. Pets who also exhibit separation
anxiety may need a different combination of medications.
Several combinations may need to be tried before the
optimum regimen for a particular animal is determined.
Many of the medications that would be used on a daily
basis, e.g.; Amitriptyline, Prozac, and Buspirone, may
take 3-4 weeks to see an effect. Examples of medications
therapies have also been used with some success. These
include melatonin and flower essences such as
two therapies take effect within an hour of administration,
and should be given prior to the storm or other fear-producing
changing the environment of the animal during the storm
or noise, the anxiety level can be reduced. Changing
the environment may reduce the volume level of the sound
or help make the pet less aware of it.
vigorous exercise: The
pet should receive vigorous exercise daily, and more
so on a day when the fear-producing noise is likely
to occur. The exercise will help to tire the animal,
both mentally and physically, and may make her less
responsive to the noise. In addition, exercise has the
effect of increasing natural serotonin levels, which
can act as a sedative.
or block the noise level: "White
noise," such as running a fan or air conditioner may
aid in blocking out some of the fear-producing noise.
Playing a TV or radio can have a similar effect. Allowing
the pet access to the basement or a room without outside
walls or windows may decrease the noise level. Closing
the windows and curtains can also help reduce the noise.
Some owners have placed foam earplugs or cotton balls
in their pets' ears.
a safe haven: Some
pets feel more comfortable in a small space such as
a crate or a small room like a bathroom (run the fan
and leave the lights on). Some pets seek out the safety
of the bathtub or shower during a storm. (Some have
hypothesized that a pet may feel less static electricity
if on tile or porcelain.) If the pet is comfortable
in a crate, the crate can be covered with a blanket
to add to the feeling of security. The door to the crate
should be left open and the pet should not be confined
to the crate, which could dramatically increase the
stress level. Some pets, especially cats, may find that
a closet or area under the bed makes a good retreat.
a calm attitude: Pets
are very aware of the mental state of their owners.
If you are worried or nervous, this will add to the
pet's fear. Your pet will look to you for direction,
so keep an "upbeat" and "in charge" attitude.
good health and nutrition: Health
problems may increase the stress level of pets, and
increase their anxiety. For instance, a dog in pain
because of hip dysplasia may be more irritable and prone
to other behavior changes. Diets too high in protein
have been linked to some behavioral problems. Consult
your veterinarian if you would like advice about changing
your pet's diet.
techniques can be used to help change the animal's response
to the noise.
Using counterconditioning, the
animal is taught to display an acceptable behavior rather
than an unacceptable one as a response to a certain
stimulus. In this way, a negative stimulus can become
associated with a positive event. For instance, the
only time the pet gets his most favorite treat, game,
or toy, is just prior to and during a thunderstorm.
Dogs who enjoy traveling may be taken for a car ride,
or cats who love catnip, may be given their favorite
catnip mouse. (Dogs who enjoy swimming will need to
wait inside until the storm is over!) After a time,
the pet will start associating an oncoming storm with
getting to have his favorite thing.
Using desensitization, the animal's
response is decreased while he is exposed to increasing
levels of the fear-producing stimulus. For noise phobias,
the animal is taught to be calm when the noise level
is low, and then the noise level is gradually increased.
This process is generally more successful in dogs than
cats. To desensitize a pet to thunderstorms:
a commercial tape of a storm, or tape record one yourself
(commercial tapes generally work better). Play the
tape at normal volume to determine if it will induce
the fear response. If it does, continue with the desensitization;
if not, you will need to obtain a different tape.
For some animals, a tape alone may not work, since
there may be a combination of occurrences that provokes
fear, e.g.; thunder plus lightning or changes in barometric
pressure. For these animals, darkening the room and
adding strobe lights may more closely mimic the storm,
and may need to be included in the desensitization
the tape at a volume low enough that the pet is aware
of the sound, but it does not induce a fear response.
For instance, the ears may be cocked towards the tape
player, but you still have the pet's attention. In
some instances, that may mean the pet needs to be
in a different room from where the tape is playing.
While the tape is playing at the low level, engage
the pet in an activity in which you give the commands,
such as obedience training or performing tricks. Give
food or other rewards during the activity when the
pet accomplishes what he is supposed to. If the animal
shows signs of fear, stop and try again the next day,
playing the tape at an even lower level. It is important
that the pet not be rewarded while he is fearful or
anxious. Sessions should last about 20 minutes.
the animal does not respond fearfully, during the
next session, increase the volume slightly. Again,
involve the pet in an activity and reward it for obeying
commands. Continue increasing the volume gradually
for each session. If the pet starts to show fear,
decrease the volume. Repeat the sessions in various
rooms of the house and with various family members
the pet does not show fear when the tape is played
at a loud volume, you may want to try playing the
tape for a short time while you are absent. Gradually
increase the time you are gone while the tape is playing.
the pet appears to have lost his fear, the sessions
can be reduced to one per week. In most instances,
these sessions will need to be repeated weekly for
the life of the pet.
an actual storm, use the same activities and rewards
you used in the training sessions.
increase the chances of successful desensitization,
the training process should take place during a time
of the year when the actual noise will not be encountered:
if the pet is afraid of thunder or fireworks, try desensitization
during the winter; if afraid of gunshots, the training
should take place outside of the hunting season. In
most instances, it is best to discontinue any behavior-modifying
medications during the desensitization process. Consult
with your veterinarian before discontinuing any medications.
of thunderstorms and other forms of noise phobia are
common problems in dogs, and some cats. Administering
medications along with changing the pets environment,
and using behavior modification techniques can help
ease the fear. Above all, do not give your pet any attention
or reward when he is showing signs of fear; this will
only reinforce the fearful behavior.
Sources of thunderstorm CDs include:
Cure Systems: 703-349-1039
Canine Communications: 800-952-6517
PO Box 523
Germantown, MD 20875
The system from Starfire is a complete system within a recording, not merely random thunder.
The operator (owners/trainer/behaviorist) does not need to guess at volume levels.
A full range of variables are incorporated into the Starfire systems.
list is for informational use only. Inclusion in this
list does not denote product endorsement.
and Further Reading
L. Animal behavior case of the month. A dog was evaluated
because of extreme fear. Journal of the American Veterinary
Medical Association. 1999; July 1;215(1):22-4.
EC; Brown, EA; Damiani, K; Dodman, NH. Thunderstorm
phobia in dogs: an Internet survey of 69 cases. Journal
of the American Animal Hospital Association. 2001; July-Aug;37(4):319-24.
KL. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals.
St. Louis, MO; Mosby Year Book Inc. 1997.
KL; Dunham, AE; Frank, D. Frequency of nonspecific clinical
signs in dogs with separation anxiety, thunderstorm
phobia, and noise phobia, alone or in combination. Journal
of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2001;
© 2001 Drs. Foster
& Smith, Inc.
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