Why do dogs panic during storms? Here's how to help your best friend weather their fear

A booming clap of thunder often sends man’s best friend into a panic. Some will hide under the couch, while others begin a barking frenzy. Some even engage in destructive behavior.

This fear is called thunderstorm phobia, according to Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian and chief medical officer at the Animal Hospital Association of America. She noted that thunderstorm phobia is common in dogs without any differentiation between breeds or sizes.

Despite this ubiquity, scientists haven’t yet pinned down what exactly causes dogs to freak out during storms. However, there are a few theories.

Theories about why dogs freak out during thunderstorms

One theory involves the noise and loudness of thunder. According to Vogelsang, dogs can hear sounds about four times farther away than humans can, and they can hear sounds at much higher frequencies.

"Their senses are attuned to things that we may not even be aware of," she said.

According to the National Weather Service, thunder can be heard – at least by human ears – from a distance of about 10 miles from a lightning strike. Given dogs’ heightened sense of hearing, what may sound like just a little thunder to humans may sound louder and much closer to dogs.

Another theory involves barometric pressure. Vogelsang noted that dogs may be able to sense the changes in barometric pressure that occur during thunderstorms and even before the thunderstorms arrive.

"That may be why some dogs start to panic before the storm even rolls in," Vogelsang said. "Their head is telling them that something's going on."

Changes in air pressure are part of thunderstorm formation, according to the NWS. Thunderstorms require clouds, and clouds need rising air to form. When the air rises through the atmosphere, the barometric pressure changes.

This is why some humans believe they can sense when a storm is coming by the way their bodies may ache when the barometric pressure changes. For dogs, whose senses we are still trying to fully grasp, these changes can put them on alert.

"They know that something scary is coming, but they don't know what it is," Vogelsang said.

How to calm down a dog in a thunderstorm

If your dog has thunderstorm phobia, Vogelsang made a few recommendations on how to calm them down.

First, she advised keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and taking a few preventative measures when the weather is expected to turn stormy.

One is having a compression shirt known as a Thundershirt for your dog. According to Vogelsang, some dogs are soothed by pressure, so having them wear a compression shirt may help them respond more positively during a thunderstorm.

Additionally, dog owners may use audio techniques to calm their dogs. Some owners may turn on music during a storm to help desensitize their dogs to the sound of thunder. Vogelsang noted that this method requires practice well in advance of a storm.

For dogs with severe thunderstorm phobia, Vogelsang suggested looking into medications to help soothe them. A veterinarian would be able to make some recommendations.

Trying to understand your dog

Measures such as these can greatly help dogs suffering from thunderstorm phobia, preventing them from phobic behaviors such as trembling, hiding, ripping up couch cushions or barking up a storm.

"It's really important for people to know that if your dog does that, they're not being malicious. They're not angry. They're just panicked," Vogelsang said. "So, it's really, really important for us, if you have dogs doing that, to try and take some measures to prevent them from having that fearful response in the first place."