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Coping With A Fear Of Thunder

For the first time in a very long while, our evenings throughout August aren’t filled with the sounds of Festival fireworks. Earlier this week though, large areas of Scotland were treated to rumbles of a different flavour when an enormous thunderstorm rolled across the capital. Our Education Officer describes the experience, and how comforting a pet brought calm to his household…

Blinding flashes of light. Deep, booming rumbles. Occasional gasps. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, not only is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo back on for one night only, the fireworks we’re accustomed to hearing this time of year have been upgraded in a very big way!

I, for one, am quite partial to a good thunderstorm. The raw power of nature can be a sight to behold, and what we saw on Tuesday night was truly awesome (in the traditional sense of the word though – as in, it inspired awe). Sitting at the window and taking it all in wasn’t really an option for me on this occasion, as I share a house with my girlfriend Nikki and my cat Misty, both of whom are terrified of thunder and lightning.

Creating a Calming Environment

Much of the advice I’d give for calming a pet during a thunderstorm echoes the advice on offer every August, Bonfire Night and Hogmanay. This includes closing up the house and keeping the lights on to dull the flashes and muffle the rumbles, providing a covered ‘safe space’ with your pet’s favourite toys and familiar smells, turning on some light music or watching the television, and rewarding calm behaviour.

Of course, another excellent way to keep a pet comfortable is through human-animal interaction – or, put simply, cuddles. This was something that – in my household – had benefits beyond just calming the cat.

The Unexpected Side Effect

With another frightened jump, Nikki confided in me just how frightened she is of thunderstorms. She’s not alone, either – in the United States, astraphobia (the fear of thunder and lightning) is believed to affect 2-3% of the population (I couldn’t find statistics specific to the UK, but I’m sure it’s similar). Pets get off even worse, with one study estimating at least 40% of dogs suffer from noise anxiety, which includes – you guessed it – thunderstorms.

So it was without surprise that Nikki and Misty sought solace in one another on Tuesday night. Misty was presumably seeking out snuggles, somewhere warm and comfortable to nestle in for a feeling of safety and companionship… somewhere like a lap. On finding Nikki’s lap, enjoying a scritch behind the ear and cosying herself in for the evening, Misty started to create a rumble of her own. Not a deep and thunderous one like on the other side of the window, but a more faint and more reassuring purr.

And that, to no surprise of any other cat owner I’m sure, benefitted Nikki enormously, too.

The Science Behind the Snuggle

“We’ve always responded to purring’s psychological effects. It calms us and pleases us, like watching waves against a beach. We respond to a cat’s purr as a calming stimulus”, says Gary Weitzman, CEO of the San Diego Humane Society in an interview with the BBC.

Not only cats come with benefits though, as cuddling a dog (and many other pets) help to release the chemical oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’). Aside from amplifying feelings of trust and affection, oxytocin can reduce levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), thereby lowering blood pressure and helping us achieve a sense of calm.

Again, much of this is known to pet owners already. Their innate ability to provide us a sense of calm in an often chaotic world is why we adore them so much. With luck we won’t need to relive that storm again any time soon, but it’s reassuring to know that in times of stress, simply being there for your beloved pet can be equally beneficial for you too.

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