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Thread: Thunderstorm Phobia in Cats

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2003
    Copenhagen, Denmark

    Thunderstorm Phobia in Cats

    I found this pet site recently with all sorts of stuff on it. A lot of you probably already know most of this, but there are some interesting articles.

    Here’s one for the cat lovers:

    Thunderstorm Phobia in Cats by:_Dr. Nicholas Dodman

    Thunderstorm phobia in cats is rare. Few species – including humans – are happy to endure the sounds of a rip-roaring 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 (besides some people) can show this phobia. Other creatures, like cats, are probably far from comfortable, but most don’t become 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. 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 may harm itself in attempts to avoid the perceived mortal threat, now we are talking about phobia. Cattle that become spooked and stampede off a cliff or dogs that hurl themselves from third story windows make the case.
    So where do cats fit into this and why? The answer to the first part of the question is that 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 in the first year or two of life, but this fear is mild to moderate. They may pace anxiously and seek their owner’s company for protection. But then they may have a sudden augmentation of their fear a few years later for no apparent reason. I hypothesize that the reason for this augmentation may be that injury is added to the insult of the storm, specifically, that they may receive a painful static electric shock during a particularly severe overhead 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 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 it is too late.
    Full-blown 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 it for fear of redirected aggression.

    Signs of Thunderstorm Fear/Phobia in Cats
    * _ Usually mild - large pupils, hiding, anti-social..
    * _ Rarely severe - feline affective defense response. Large pupils, hair coat raised, tail bushy, body hunkered down and tense, hissing and spitting.

    * _ 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 it 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 best but stress may make food unappetizing to your cat. To circumvent this obstacle to training it can sometimes 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.

    Though many cats are fearful during storms, thunderstorm phobia in cats is rare. A computer search of the scientific literature (Medline) produced no results when the key words thunderstorm phobia, noise phobia, and cats, were cross-referenced. So, while it is unlikely that you will find your cat pacing and howling during a storm or trying to break out when left alone, you may well notice that it just isn't around. If you search for it you may find it under the bed, anxiously licking its nose. Does this mean it's frightened? Absolutely! But is it phobic? Not necessarily. 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 its stomach and that maxim applies just as well when its knees are shaking as it does at other times.


    "Peace cannot be achieved through violence,
    it can only be attained through understanding."
    Albert Einstein

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Feb 2002
    I'm not sure, what day is it? ;-)
    Penaut is afraid of thunderstorms. She will always hide somewhere - we haven't discovered where yet - and will only come out about an hour after the last big boomer hits. I've tried to comfort her in the past, like when the storm first hits, but next thing you know she's gone. My little scaredy cat.
    Spring 1986 - Dec. 11, 2004
    RIP Big Boy
    Fall 1988 - Jan. 24, 2007
    RIP Snotty Girl
    Fall 1997 - Oct. 6, 2012
    RIP Sweet Monkeyhead Girl

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Apr 2002
    We had yesterday a test running: Tigris spent all the thunderstorm time under Siegmar's bed (one of his favorite hiding places anyway). Filou stopped sleeping and sat in the middle of the room, cleaning his ears

    So I think you can't speak of phobia right here. Unfortunately the petunias on our balcony did not have a hiding strategy

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Nov 2002
    Bastet and thunderstorms - a one person one cat play ...

    Me: Bastet get away from the window

    Storm: *Zap* BOOM!

    Bastet: *chitter* tail waggles excitedly does a running leap off the window sill - looks at me - rubs herself against me and jumps right back on the window sill....

    Me: Bastet get away from the window ...

    End of play.

    Our windows are glass and aluminium or else I wouldn't worry so much.
    "A cat cannot see directly under its nose. This is why the cat cannot seem to find tidbits on the floor."

  5. #5
    Join Date
    May 2001
    If the thunder and lightning become too intense, Ritzy takes refuge under the living room chair...we just lift up the skirt periodically and talk to her...she eventually emerges. The last time she actually sat out the whole thing and cuddled with us during the storm...

    I look at this as my own "warning system"...if the cat goes under, it's a bad storm...keep an eye out. Good Ritzy!
    "Everything is better when Ritz sits on it......or in it"

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Mar 2003
    Independence, Kansas
    I Have notieced that my cats will watch my reactions to any kind of external noise, including thunderstorms and heavy equipment going down the street. Some of them hide, but more usual is to keep in one place and begin to seek a "safer location". Chrissie's reaction is most typical. At the first sound of loud noises, he will begin to become agitated, but will not run and hide, but instead will walk around, as though he is not afraid and will wait out the disturbance in this manner.


  7. #7
    Join Date
    Apr 2001
    My Schuyler (white cat in avatar) is the only cat I have ever encountered that is unsettled by thunderstorms. I would not call it a phobia as he is not freaking out by hissing and fluffing his fur, but he does try to seek a safe haven which is usually under the bed. During the last T-storm I noticed him trying to get into my opened cabinet under the kitchen sink! There is no room since there because I keep my trash bag attached to the inside of the cabinet door, and I keep my cleaninig products under the sink. But he was bound and determined, poor guy!

    The article was helpful and I will try the suggestions in order to desensitize him the next time any boomers hit.

    Avatar courtesy of Kimlovescats . . . many thanks!
    EvErY LiFe ShOuLd HaVe NiNe CaTs

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