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Cats and Thunderstorms

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Few species – including humans – are happy to endure the sounds of a full-blown thunderstorm, complete with darkened skies, lightning and crashing thunder. Some become extremely fearful to the point where they show a full-blown phobia.

Dogs and cattle often demonstrate this phobia. Other creatures, like cats, are probably far from comfortable, but most don't become overtly phobic – although there are exceptions.

Before considering the specifics of thunderstorm phobia in cats, it is worth emphasizing that fear is a normal response to a fear-inducing situation or circumstance, whereas phobias are extreme and seemingly irrational fears in which the response has been magnified to the point of dysfunction. It is reasonable and biologically sensible to be a little uneasy during a lightning storm – to avoid open spaces and seek cover. But when an animal gets completely distraught at the first roll of thunder and harms himself to avoid the perceived mortal threat, then we are talking about phobia. Cattle that become spooked and stampede off a cliff or dogs that hurl themselves from third story windows during a storm make the case.

Many cats, quite sensibly, tend to become nervous during storms and may remove themselves from the fray by hiding under a bed or in a cupboard. This self-preservation response qualifies as a fear. Unlike dogs, however, cats tend not to advance to the phobic stage, perhaps because their strategy of avoidance works. They hide; the storm passes; they emerge unscathed.

Dogs often start out sensibly, too. Dogs that eventually become phobic often show fear of storms in the first year or two of life, but this fear is mild to moderate in intensity. They may pace anxiously and seek their owner's company for protection. But then some have a sudden exacerbation of their fear a few years later for no apparent reason. This sudden worsening may be due to the fact that injury is added to the insult by some event that occurs during a storm. Specifically, some phobic dogs may become so because they receive a painful static electric shock during a particularly severe electric storm. This aversive event confirms and magnifies their suspicions of the malevolence and danger implicit in storms. Some confirmation of this is provided by the fact that large thick-coated dogs are most commonly affected by severe thunderstorm phobia.

Cats and small dogs may be somewhat immune to such static shocks. Cats usually prefer to hide rather than pace, so trouble is minimized. Some dogs eventually learn to stay in one safe place during storms, too, but often not until after the fact.

Thunderstorm phobia is really uncommon in cats, but it does sometimes occur under unusual circumstances. One cat became storm phobic because she received an electric jolt from a nearby telephone jack (the result of a secondary lightning strike) while on a countertop. During future storms, the cat hunkered down, hair coat raised, tail bushy and hissed and spit. This would not be a good time to pick the cat up to comfort her for fear of redirected aggression.

Signs of Thunderstorm Fear/Phobia in Cats

  • Usually mild - large pupils, hiding, anti-social behavior
  • Rarely severe - feline affective defense response, which includes large pupils, hair coat raised, tail bushy, body hunkered down and tense, hissing and spitting.

    Treatment

  • Probably the best treatment is avoidance. If the cat can be brought to an area of the house, like a finished basement, that is relatively sound and light proof the problem can be averted and contained.

  • Counterconditioning. What this means is encouraging the cat to do something pleasurable and distracting during the storm so that he associates storms with fun times instead of fear. Using food to train the cat to respond to some voice cues (Come here! Sit! Jump up!) is a good ploy, but stress may make food unappetizing to your cat. To circumvent this obstacle to training it should be arranged that the cat is hungry prior to the storm arriving (the weather channel is helpful here) and, in addition, only delicious, practically irresistible food treats should be used.

  • Desensitization. A tedious and not particularly successful technique of treatment for storm phobia in which the cat is exposed to progressively increasing volumes of high quality pre-recorded storm sounds. It is usually conducted with simultaneous counterconditioning.

  • Anxiety-reducing pharmacological treatment. Drugs that have been used to assuage fears in cats include: Clomicalm® (clomipramine), Prozac® (fluoxetine), Buspar® (buspirone) and Inderal® (propranolol). An over-the-counter hormone treatment, melatonin, has also been used with some success to treat noise phobias in dogs. As usual, consult your local veterinarian before employing any of these treatments.

    Although you can simply leave scared cats alone, it is more humane to condition them out of their fear using delicious food treats. The way to a cat's heart is through his stomach and that maxim applies just as well when his knees are shaking as it does at other times.

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