Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Some Pets Petrified When It's Raining Cats and Dogs


Pet Column for the week of March 10, 1997


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Joseph Hahn
Information Specialist

Thunderstorm season is upon us, and the forecast for many dogs and cats calls for fear,
anxiety, and acting out. "Fear of thunderstorms, fireworks, and other loud noises is a very
common behavior disorder in both dogs and cats," according to Dr. Sheila McCullough,
community practice veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching
Hospital at Urbana.

The range of responses seen with this fear is large. Some animals will whine and whimper or
stand still and shake. Others may compulsively chew, either on themselves or possibly on
the closest piece of furniture. Some may dig. Animals may be so frightened they dig through
hardwood floors or jump through a plate glass window to escape.

"Many animals can sense when a thunderstorm is approaching long before it actually
happens," she says. "As owners, we don't necessarily do anything to perpetuate this fear."
Flashes of lightning, the crash of thunder, and the unpredictable nature of the storm can add
to the animal's level of fear.

The nondrug-oriented method of treating this fear is desensitization. Dr. McCullough
explains desensitization as "simply giving the animal the stimulus (the sound of the
thunderstorm) in low doses, and then gradually increasing the dose of the stimulus." Look
for a recording of thunder sounds at your local library, or record your own during a storm.

While desensitization can be very successful, she emphasizes that this treatment is a very
long-term approach, taking anywhere from a few months to greater than a year, depending
on the patient. Desensitization takes time and patience to be truly effective.

"During desensitization treatment, you are creating fear in the animal. It is important to link
that fear with a positive reinforcement," says Dr. McCullough. There is debate about which
reinforcement will work best, but a positive reinforcement may be gentle stroking or a food
treat.

Drug therapy is a new form of treatment for this fear disorder. Drugs commonly used
include Acepromazine and Valium. Dr. McCullough stresses, "Be very careful with drugs
that manipulate the brain. We have not done enough research with drugs such as Prozac,
Amitriptyline, or Valium to understand the true effects on the animal's behavior. There can
be both positive and negative behavior changes in pets who are on medication. Be on the
lookout for potential adverse effects as well as good effects."

If you are interested in using drug therapy, contact your local veterinarian to determine
whether it would be appropriate for your pet.

Fireworks present another fearsome challenge to noise-phobic pets. "The Fourth of July is
simply the worst holiday for the cats and dogs that suffer from fear of loud noises," notes
Dr. McCullough. "It is almost like a manmade thunderstorm and can be even more
frightening and unpredictable. The noises continue a few days before and a few days after
the actual holiday."

One solution during this holiday for dogs that are extremely influenced by loud noises is to
board them at a veterinary hospital. For many animals, the stress of boarding is not as
severe as the fear and stress associated with the Fourth of July holiday.

She also suggests doing things that will help take the animal's mind off what is going on
outside. For example, give your pet extra playtime or play a radio or television in the
background. It is very important that a dog or cat fearful of loud noises is not left alone on
the Fourth of July.

Dr. McCullough says that it is important to know your pet well so that you can see whether
there are any changes in behavior that might indicate something is not right. A fear of
thunderstorms and loud noises can occur at any time in your pet's life and will not diminish
as your pet matures.

If you feel your animal suffers from this fear, contact your local veterinarian.