June 1, 2006 A new study shows that dogs can get very upset during thunderstorms, whether or not their owner holds them. The study measured the stress hormone cortisol to be up to three times normal levels while the dogs heard recordings of a thunderstorm. The company of other dogs did help, though vets say medications may be more effective.
Do thunderstorms make your dog tremble with fear with every rumble? Thunderstorm anxiety is common among dogs, sending frightened pooches shuddering under beds or even tearing up furniture. What's really behind this pet panic?
All it takes is one rumble from a thunderstorm and Patty Nordstrom's dog, Iko, is a nervous wreck.
"Iko starts shaking and panting and pacing and is very nervous and upset," Nordstrom says. Many sympathetic owners like her try comforting pooches with thunderstorm anxiety. Now, a new study shows consoling your pet may not help.
"One thing that the study showed was their dogs got really upset whether they held them, whether they left them alone," says Nancy Dreschel, a veterinarian at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.
During the study, veterinarians sampled the dogs' saliva from a chewed cotton rope after they listened to a thunderstorm recording. Vets then measured the stress hormone cortisol and found its levels increased an average of 200 percent during a storm!
Dr. Dreschel says, "Physiologically, they're definitely responding -- their body's responding -- to this stress."
So how do you help Fido cope? Researchers say having other dogs around may help lower stress levels. "In dogs that lived in households with other dogs, their response was not as high and seemed to come back to normal more quickly," Dr. Dreschel says. But don't run out and get another dog just yet. She says talk to your vet first.
While Nordstrom figures out the best way to calm Iko, she's lucky thunderstorm season doesn't last forever. "It only really happens a few months out of the year. We try to work with him the best we can." Working to help man's best friend weather the next storm.
Researchers point out that having a multiple-dog household won't cure your pet of storm phobia. If you have a dog with severe storm phobia, discuss behavior options, like medications, with your veterinarian.
BACKGROUND: A new study by researchers at Penn State University has found that having a sympathetic owner did not lower the stress reaction of dogs that become anxious or fearful during noisy thunderstorms, but that living in a multi-dog household did lower the stress reaction. Storm-phobic animals can exhibit erratic behavior, destroying household items and furnishings, and causing their owners to experience lack of sleep and considerable mental stress.
ABOUT THE STUDY: Thunderstorm-anxious dogs not only suffer classic signs of fear -- including pacing, whining and hiding during a storm -- but also show a 207 percent spike in the production of cortisol, a hormone also produced by humans during stress. The researchers took saliva samples from the dogs used in the study before and after exposure to a recorded thunderstorm, and measured the cortisol levels in each sample. Dogs that lived in multi-dog households had significantly less overall change in cortisol levels compared to dogs that lived in single-dog households. This corresponds to a less extreme reaction to thunderstorms in dogs from the multi-dog households. However, that doesn't mean those with anxious pets should run out to the local animal shelter for additional dogs. The dogs in multi-dog households started out with slightly higher cortisol levels, indicating they were already under more stress from living with other dogs.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT: Certain events act as "stressors," triggering the nervous system to produce hormones to respond to the perceived danger. Specifically, the adrenal glands produce more adrenaline and cortisol, releasing them into the bloodstream. This speeds up heart and breathing rates, and increases blood pressure and metabolism. These and other physical changes help us to react quickly and effectively under pressure. This is known as the "stress response," or more commonly, as the "fight or flight response." But if even low levels of stress go on too long, it can be detrimental to one's health. The nervous system remains slightly activated and continues to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period, leaving the person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, and weakening the body's immune system.
STRESS-REDUCING TIPS: It might not be possible to de-sensitize dogs who are fearful of thunder, but there are some easy, practical things humans can do to reduce the amount of stress in their lives. (1) Be realistic and don't try to be perfect, or expect others to be so. (2) Don't over-schedule; cut out an activity or two when you start to feel overwhelmed. (3) Get a good night's sleep. (4) Get regular exercise to manage stress -- just not excessive or compulsive exercise -- and follow a healthy diet. (5) Learn to relax by building time into your schedule for reading or a nice long bath.