The full moon rising is a beautiful sight. Myths abound concerning changes in the behavior of man and beast under the influence of its brilliant light. After all, the term lunatic derives from luna the Greek word for moon.
Legend has it that the full moon causes men who have been cursed or bitten by a werewolf to shapeshift into werewolves and come out to prowl. Dogs are said to bay more vociferously and cats to yowl with more fervor under the influence of the full moon.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle used a scientific slant to explain the effect of the full moon on behavior. He reasoned that since the brain is the moistest organ in the body, the water in the brain was vulnerable to the influences of the moon just like the tides. Since about 80% of the body is water, the idea persisted for many years. For a time, it was even thought that the moon could somehow disrupt the alignment of water molecules throughout the nervous system. Today we know that the gravitational force of the moon does influence large open bodies of water like lakes and oceans but does not have the same effect on the small amount of water in the brain.
Animals of prey are known to stay hunkered in their dens when the moon is full. Some speculate that they want to avoid being easily seen by predators in the light of the full moon. Interestingly, wolves and other nocturnal predators are said to hunt less in the light of the full moon. Perhaps they are moonstruck or know that their prey is avoiding the light of the moon.
Others conjecture that animals are especially active at the full moon because of the increased amount of light so they tend to prowl more and get into mischief and potential trouble. Until recently, all explanations were only suppositions.
A study to find out if pets are affected by a full moon was done by Reagan Wells, DVM of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. She set out to determine if pets suffered more injuries or got into more trouble when the moon was full. She found that the number of cats and dogs visiting the emergency room definitely increased during the period just before, during and after a full moon.
Her findings, "Canine and Feline Emergency Room Visits and the Lunar Cycle", were reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Medical records revealed that 9,407 dogs and 2,533 cats or a total of 11,940 pets were seen at the university's medical center during the period of the full moon over an 11 year period.
The emergency visits were categorized into several types including animal bites, cardiac arrest, epilepsy, gastric dilatation-volvulus (bloat), trauma, and poisoning. The phase of the moon was noted for each pet visit.
The investigators found there was a 28 percent greater chance that dogs and a 21 percent increased probability that cats were seen for emergency medical care when the moon was full or was waxing and waning. This is the first study of its kind, so more research is necessary to determine if the increase in emergency room care was because of the phases of the moon or if other factors were in play.
Not only do more pets require emergency care during the full moon, they are also responsible for more people needing emergency care when the moon is full. Over a two year period, Doctors at Bradford Royal Infirmary saw patients suffering from 1,541 dog bites, 56 cat bites, 13 horse bites, and 11 rat bites. That's twice the number of animal bites that are normally seen. The incidence of bites rose in the two or three days before a full moon and peaked when the moon was fullest.
Myths of werewolves prowling and the moon's gravitational effect on brain water can pretty safely be dismissed. However, science is still unable to determine how the full moon may affect the behavior of pets. Until we know more, it is probably best to keep your furry friend safely tucked beside you on the couch when the full moon is out.
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With a Ph.D. in Biological sciences from the University of Texas in Austin and a masters in Zoology from Southern Illinois University, Dr. Sue is devoted to the care and massaging of pets. Read her articles here.