Fear of Loud Noises
It is not unusual for a dog or cat to be startled by or even afraid of loud noises. Fire crackers, sirens, thunder, and other sounds hurt their sensitive ears and often the animal does not understand the cause of the sound. Noise phobia – an abnormal and intense fear – can affect a pet’s quality of life both mentally and physically so it should be addressed.
Animals should not be forced to confront or listen to something that is scaring them so profusely. Punishing a dog or cat for the behaviors that are symptoms of their fear—drooling, eliminating, destructiveness, growling, etc.—will only make the situation worse. Pets who are afraid need to be slowly exposed to the noise in order to desensitize them to it.
First, you need to be able to control the noise that your pet is afraid of. If your dog or cat is afraid of the doorbell or the vacuum cleaner, that is simple. But you can’t make thunder at will. For a noise that you cannot recreate, make an audio recording or purchase one of the many cds available for sound desensitization.
Make the noise at a very low volume for about 15 seconds. During this time, play with your pet or give him treats and speak to him with an upbeat tone. Withdraw attention as soon as the noise stops. Wait a few minutes and repeat this. End the session and wait for at least a couple of hours before doing it again. When there is no visible sign of distress you may increase the volume slightly and make the noise for 20 – 30 seconds, still offering your pet’s favorite things. Continue to gradually increase the volume of the noise and the duration that it is made. Once your pet is showing no fear while the noise is happening for a few minutes at a fairly loud volume you may start to gradually give fewer treats or play less intensely. Slowly wean him off of these distractions and reinforcers; however, continue to praise him when he does not over-react to noises.
If your pet is afraid of something that has no volume control, such as a vacuum cleaner, have one person turn on and off the vacuum in one room while you are with your pet in another room. Or muffle the sound by covering the vacuum with a thick blanket.
Timing is something to consider when working with noise phobia. Spring, when storms are common, is not the best time to desensitize a thunder-phobic animal, for instance, as there will be too many occurrences of the scary sound that you are not able to control.
To help your pet cope with noise before you are able to complete a desensitization program, provide a safe place for your pet to hide or do your best to avoid the noise (for example, if an ambulance is approaching while on a walk, quickly try to take a perpendicular route that will get you away from the siren). Consider a Thundershirt™ (helpful for all noise phobias not just thunder) or Mutt Muffs (there are sizes that fit cats, too). Extremely phobic pets – those who injure themselves or damage your property as a result of their fear – may require a prescription anti-anxiety medication. Avoid tranquilizers, as they simply shut down the body’s responses to fear but the animal still experiences it. Always consult your veterinarian before giving any medication, even over the counter medication.