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Published: Aug 03, 2012

While many pets and their owners love being able to spend time outdoors during the warm summer months, summer is also thunderstorm season - a time of year that can be especially stressful for many dogs and their owners.

Owners of pets with thunderstorm anxiety know that the slightest rumble of thunder can result in a variety of behaviors in their animals. These include panting, pacing, salivating, shaking, whimpering and even destructive behaviors like scratching and digging.

A 2006 study conducted at Penn State University found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol increased an average of 200 percent when dogs listened to a recording of a thunderstorm.

Veterinarians say the anxiety is often caused by changes in barometric pressure and can start hours before the actual storm begins. The wind, rain and other low frequency rumbles that precede storms may also affect your pet.

The good news is that there are a variety of ways to help your dog cope with anxiety triggered by thunderstorms.

Penn State researchers found that consoling or holding your pet is unlikely to be effective in easing their fears. Instead, experts say this can reinforce the anxious behavior by sending a signal that the dog is being rewarded when he or she acts a certain way.

Some vets prescribe sedatives for dogs that suffer from thunderstorm phobia. However, many believe that medications may simply make the animals appear to be calm, while they are still anxious.

"Of course, you can't ask the dog if it still feels anxious, but now there are drugs on the market that are specifically made to treat anxiety, not hyperactivity," veterinary anesthesiologist Dr. Rachael Carpenter explained in a publication for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Pet health experts say it is important to consult with a vet before giving medication to dogs.

Desensitizing your dog to storms by playing recordings of thunderstorm noises may also help him or her cope.

"Start it out quietly, and then play it a little louder. At the same time, tell the dog to go to its bed and relax, and reward them for lying down and relaxing," Carpenter explained.

Your dog may also cope with thunderstorms better if he or she can find a safe place - such as a bathtub, closet or under a bed - to stay during bad weather.
Others suggest using a product called the Thundershirt. This is a tight-fitting shirt that the animal wears. The manufacturer says the gentle, constant pressure it provides can help ease anxiety and has been proven effective 80 percent of the time.

Penn State researchers say having other dogs around may also 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," said veterinarian Dr. Nancy Dreschel.