Aversions to loud noises such as thunder, fireworks, rubbish trucks or the vacuum cleaner are common in pets, especially those which were not exposed safely to these experiences during their early socialisation period. There are a range of strategies you can employ to reduce the stress of these experiences in your cat, however there are no magic cures and improvement can take time.
The best thing you can do is ensure your cat has a place to hide during a thunderstorm, ie: don’t try to keep them in an open room and force them to tolerate the experience, as this will only reinforce it as a negative experience for them. If your cat has a preferred box/wardrobe/under the bed, let them hide there.
Desensitisation can sometimes help; recordings of thunderstorms are available commercially and online, which can be played at a low volume for short periods of time (1/2 – 1 minute), gradually increasing in length and volume as your cat becomes more used to it. This could be played while you are having a happy cuddle/play time together or while your cat is eating (stop the recording before they react to it, and give praise, pats or a treat to reward calm behaviour). This lets your cat know that good things can happen in spite of the noise.
Other ways to reduce anxiety include using a synthetic pheromone spray and/or diffuser, such as “Feliway”, which imitates the “happy” pheromones that cats release from their temples when they head-butt things in their environment. “Thundershirts” have been used with varying levels of success in dogs to reduce anxiety, however the act of wrestling a tight-fitting outfit onto a cat is likely to be as traumatising as the thunder itself.
In extreme cases, where your cat is reacting to the point of injuring themselves or showing signs of chronic stress, it’s best to seek advice from your veterinarian. If possible, use your phone to make a recording of your cat’s behaviour during the traumatic event to show your vet (but don’t upset them simply to get a recording). Keeping a journal of your cat’s behaviour can also be a useful resource when talking to your vet. Medication to reduce anxiety during known upcoming traumatic events can be useful, but this can only occur following a full assessment by your veterinarian and used under their direction, in conjunction with other strategies such as those mentioned above.
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