Probing Question: How can I help my dog weather thunderstorm phobia?

When summer storms roll through Central Pennsylvania, Nancy Dreschel's thoughts turn to her patients who suffer from severe thunderstorm phobia. "They can really freak out," she says. "Some pace the floors nervously, while others will hide, or chew the furniture. I even had one patient crash through a closed second story window in total panic."

dog in a thunderstorm
James Collins

No, it's not your neighbor who is going berserk—it's her pet dog. As part of her work toward a doctorate in biobehavioral health, veterinarian Dreschel recently conducted one of the first studies to non-invasively measure the levels of cortisol—a hormone linked to stress reactivity—in storm-phobic dogs.

"I'm writing my dissertation on anxiety in dogs and its effect on their health and life span," she explains. "Thunderstorm anxiety in dogs is a very common problem with reports of 15 to 30 percent of pet dogs affected. I wanted to better understand factors impacting the stress response in anxious dogs."

To achieve that goal, Dreschel and thesis advisor Douglas Granger recruited 19 dog-owner pairs (all the dogs had been previously diagnosed with the disorder) and asked the owners to play a recording of a thunderstorm at home.

"During the five-minute simulated thunderstorm, the whole scene was videotaped," Dreschel says. "The owners collected a baseline cortisol saliva sample, turned on the videotape and then collected saliva at intervals of twenty minutes after playing the storm sounds." Testing at home and sampling saliva rather than blood would avoid other sources of doggie stress, the researchers reasoned.

When Dreschel analyzed the samples, she was surprised by the results. "The phobic dogs' cortisol levels increased tremendously during the experiment, up to a 200 percent increase from their baseline," she says. "To put it in perspective, if we do a cortisol study with kids, a jump of 40 percent is a big increase. Clearly, storms are a major stressor for these particular dogs."

Nor did a "high-quality" relationship (defined by several psychometric surveys giving to owners) between the dogs and their caregivers seem to minimize canine stress levels. Interestingly, the only factor that mitigated a dog's anxiety was living in a multi-dog household.

Before you run out and get another dog, however, Dreschel has some recommendations for owners with thunderstorm-phobic pooches. "Preventing severe anxiety is key," she says. "When a thunderstorm hits, try to connect the event with positive associations and make it a fun time. Bring out your dog's favorite toys and food treats. One of my clients took her dog for walks in the rain and that made thunderstorms a fun thing."

If the behavioral stuff doesn't work, she adds, a mild sedative may take the edge off. Another option is a plug-in diffuser that releases a soothing canine pheromone that humans can't smell. The important thing, Dreschel concludes, is to keep trying to help your storm-phobic dog. "The behavior of anxious dogs can take its toll on both the pets and owners," she says, "but there is help available."

Nancy A. Dreschel, D.V.M., is a doctoral student in biobehavioral health; nad5@psu.edu. Douglas A. Granger, Ph.D. is associate professor of biobehavioral health; dag11@psu.edu. The study reported above was published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science in December 2005. Cortisol measurement kits were provided by Salimetrics LLC.

Last Updated October 09, 2006