Many people enjoy watching a flashing thunderstorm come rolling in, and young and old delight in sparkling firework explosions. Unfortunately for our pets, these booming situations can cause intense anxiety and fear, rather than wonder and awe.
What is a noise aversion or phobia?
Noise aversions and phobias are two different conditions. Many pets suffer from a noise aversion, which is a fearful response to loud sounds, such as fireworks, thunderstorms, babies crying, traffic, construction, or gunshots. Noise aversions escalate into phobias when a pet experiences an extreme, persistent fear of a noise, causing a panic attack out of proportion to any threat the noise poses.
When an animal experiences fear, the body kicks into flight-or-fight mode and releases a variety of chemicals, such as cortisol, geared toward protection. Over time, these increased chemicals can negatively affect your pet’s health, even changing the chemistry inside the brain. Veterinary medicine is now embracing Fear Free veterinary visits to help owners reduce their pet’s fear and anxiety at home and limit these neurochemical changes.
What causes a noise aversion or phobia in pets?
Pets of any age can develop a noise aversion or phobia, but they most commonly occur in pets at least a year of age. Fear of noise may develop gradually over time, while phobias usually advance quickly. A variety of factors, including the following, may contribute to noise aversions:
- Traumatic experiences
- Learning from other pets
- Lack of positive habituation to a sound
- Sensitization to a sound
- Linking a specific sound with an unpleasant situation
- Illness, pain, or itching
In dogs, herding breeds tend to react most to loud, startling noises, while hunting breeds consider it part of the job. Pets with noise aversions appear to develop other anxiety-related behaviors and aversions to more than one noise. They also are prone to separation anxiety, become fearful in novel situations, and take much longer to calm down after a stressful event.
What are the signs of noise aversion in pets?
Noise aversion signs are generally easier to spot in dogs than cats, but our feline friends also can suffer from noise phobias. Cats usually showcase their fear as hiding or yowling, but dogs can display any of the following signs:
- Trying to escape
- Barking, whining, or howling
- Seeking comfort from family members
How can you manage your pet’s noise aversion?
Once you realize an aversion to the noise of fireworks is causing your pet’s excessive clinginess during Fourth of July celebrations, you can begin to ease her fear. Try the following tips:
- Desensitize and countercondition your pet to loud noises — To change your pet’s perception of loud noises, use a combination of desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization requires a soundtrack of your pet’s noise phobia played at such a low volume, she doesn’t react. The volume is slowly increased, as long as your pet doesn’t react to the louder volume. Counterconditioning involves using high-value treats to reward your pet for not reacting, helping to create a positive association with the trigger. These behavior-modification methods take time, but will eventually help your pet remain calm when faced with her fears.
- Create a haven for your pet — Soundproof a cozy spot where your pet can relax away from loud noises and bright lights. Include her favorite bed and fill the area with toys and treat puzzles for entertainment.
- Try calming supplements — A wide variety of calming supplements is available, all claiming to ease your pet’s anxiety. Each pet responds differently to medications and herbal remedies, so trial-and-error is often necessary to find the right fit for your pet. Since some herbal products can interfere with medications or cause harmful side effects, talk to us before giving your pet a calming supplement.
- Fit your pet for a compression wrap — Compression wraps have been shown to relieve anxiety in pets. Thundershirts have a more than 80% success rate and a money-back guarantee.
- Diffuse pheromones — Pheromones designed to create a feeling of calm and comfort have been developed for both cats and dogs. For maximum effect, use diffusers and collars continuously.
- Distract your pet with tasty treats — An engaged brain has little room to focus on fear. Entice your pet into a training session with high-value treats, or invest in a treat puzzle that will provide long-lasting fun.
- Ask for help — Some pets have such a severe fear of loud noises, they cause harm to themselves, their homes, or their owners. If your pet is suffering from a noise phobia, schedule a behavioral consult to see if she could be a candidate for pharmaceutical aid. Many treatment options are available to reduce anxiety and fear without sedating your pet. We can also refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist for additional assistance.
Do you need help to take your pet from freaked out to fear free? Schedule an appointment for a behavior evaluation and a treatment plan to ease your pet’s noise aversion or phobia.