Dog's storm phobia can put bite in household budget

When Beth Styrbicki came home from work earlier this month, she was shocked at what she found: Wood splinters were strewn across the floor, and a door had been torn to pieces, its skeletal structure exposed.

"At first I thought somebody had broken into the house," said Styrbicki, who lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

It was an inside job, carried out by Louie, aka Sweet Louie, Styrbicki's 90-pound yellow lab retriever.

Spooked by lightning, thunder and heavy rain, Louie had aimed his bulk at Styrbicki's office door in a severe episode of what pet behaviorists call thunderstorm phobia.

When storms strike, dogs with the phobia tremble and try to crawl into a tight space, pace or pant, or even jump through a window or doors to get close to their owners.

It's a common phenomenon in thunderstorm country, especially in the summer. Though there hasn't been a spike in complaints, "a lot of people will probably be glad when storm season is over," said Paula Zukoff, behavior and training manager for the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb.

It's not entirely clear why some dogs have the phobia and others don't. Thunder and flashes of lighting are obvious triggers. But many dogs seem to react instead to changes in atmospheric pressure or static electricity, said Linda Brodzik, a dog behavior specialist in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Some will even curl around a toilet, pipe or in a bathtub in an apparent attempt to ground themselves as storms approach, she said.

Some dogs that get nervous with thunderstorms seem to shrug off fireworks, and vice versa, Zukoff and Brodzik said. The phobia affects all breeds, none more than others.

It may even be a result of domestication, Brodzik said. Frantic responses to storms take so much energy that dogs or other animals in the wild wouldn't survive them.

"Owners can reinforce a dog's startle reflex," Brodzik said. "I have clients that are very afraid of thunderstorms, and their pets are, too."

Thunderstorm phobia can catch pet owners off guard. For unknown reasons, it seems to manifest itself in older dogs -- 7 is the average age of onset, Zukoff said.

There are several strategies for dealing with the phobia:

--Medication. A vet can prescribe drugs appropriate to a dog's size, age, temperament and degree of anxiety. Melatonin and Benadryl are commonly prescribed. So is DAP (dog appeasing pheromone), which can be sprayed on a bandana, then tied around the dog's neck, or impregnated in a dog collar. The substance is secreted by nursing dogs and can have a relaxing effect, Zukoff said.

--Confinement. Dogs can be put in a cage or crate, presuming they're already familiar with the space. Or they can be closed in the basement or another space with a radio, music or fan to mask storm noise.

--Training. Owners can work with dogs to comfort them during storms. It's essential that owners don't transfer their own storm anxiety to their pet.

--The wrap. A dog jacket known as a Thundershirt (www. thundershirt.com), which exerts gentle pressure on dogs and relaxes them, has proven to be effective, Zukoff and Brodsik said.

All those methods require owners to invest more time with their dog, or to have the flexibility to respond quickly when the sky darkens. The strategies don't always wipe out thunderstorm phobia.

"Sometimes you just have to live with it, or try not to leave the dog alone so it doesn't create thousands of dollars of damage in your home," Zukoff said. "Some dogs are more easily treated than others."

Styrbicki's dog was a rescue animal that she bought when he was about a year old. He seemed to develop his phobia only recently, and Styrbicki has been advised to give him drugs.

Louie wasn't punished when Styrbicki found the damage he'd done.

"Sometimes I'll give him The Look," she said. "But I didn't do it this time. I sang him the Daniel Powter song 'Bad Day.' He wagged his tail. It was after the fact, and there was nothing he could do about it."

(Contact Bill McAuliffe at mcaul(at)startribune.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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