Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Cinny, a three-month-old Chiahuahua, poses for a portrait. Static buildup and a drop in barometic pressure during thunderstorms may give some dogs anxiety.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Why Your Dog Freaks Out During Thunderstorms—And What to Do

With summer around the corner, we looked into what causes storm anxiety, and how to soothe our canines.

Summer weather is just around the corner—and with it thunderstorms that may freak out your dog. We looked into what causes this anxiety, and how to soothe their rainy-day feelings.

Signs of anxiousness in dogs are "ears back, tails down, eyes wide, panting, lip-licking and yawning," says Terry Curtis, a clinical behaviorist at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. (See our favorite dog pictures.)

Sometimes, their panic escalates to dangerous levels during thunderstorms. "I've had cases where the dog has dug through walls, all the way through the drywall," Curtis says. "Another dog jumped through a sliding glass door."

So what gives?

Electrified

Dropping barometric pressure—which dogs can sense—coupled with darkening skies, wind, and the sheer noise of thunder can cause fearful reactions in dogs. (Read how scientists are trying to crack the mystery of nighttime thunderstorms.)

Some dogs have canine noise aversion, which can make them uncomfortable or even phobic about loud sounds.

Static buildup in their fur is another likely explanation, says Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University and chief scientific officer at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies.

Large dogs and those with long or double coats easily build up static electricity, the way we do when we wear a sweater and get a shock from the car door if we're not wearing rubber-soled shoes, he says.

A dog already nervous during storms may get another shock when touching its nose to a metal object. Then mild discomfort could escalate to full-on phobia, Dodman says.

Kelly Ballyntyne, clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, says that it's difficult to test whether static buildup causes anxiety in dogs.

Our canines' incredible noses may "just be smelling changes in the environment that predict a storm is coming," she says.

In addition, "there's a little bit of evidence that there can be some genetic predispositions for animals to develop noise phobia," such as border collies and Australian shepherds.

Soothing the Storm-Weary Pup

While treating storm-phobic dogs, Dodman noticed that many canines seek out hiding places grounded against electric shocks, such as bathtubs, jacuzzis, or behind the toilet tank.

Curious about this odd behavior, he started informally asking owners where their dogs hide, and half of them said the bathroom. One 80-pound German shepherd even jumps into the sink, he says. (Related: "Dogs Sense Earth's Magnetic Field.")

Curtis and Dodman both recommend owners buy a anti-static jacket to keep the dog calm, and Dodman adds that rubbing them down with an anti-static dryer sheet also helps. Snug-fitting wraps can also be comforting.

Watch Spellbinding Time-Lapses of Storms After traveling more than 20,000 miles through nine states, photographer Mike Olbinski captured mesmerizing time-lapses of thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Ballyntyne suggests dog owners videotape their dog while away to look for signs such as pacing, panting, and restlessness. These behaviors could reveal mild separation anxiety that's exacerbated by storms.

She also advises letting the animal decide where it feels safe, and then making that area more comfortable by adding white-noise machines—to buffer the noise of thunder—or acoustic tiling for soundproofing. (Here's how we know dogs have feelings.)

And all the experts agreed that a veterinarian can prescribe medication if needed.

"If the dog is panicked," Ballantyne says, anti-anxiety medication "will go a long way to improve that dog's quality of life."

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