05 Jun Boom, Bang, Clang, Oh My!

Post By: Dr. Victoria Klibanoff

It is the season for thunderstorms, fireworks and other loud noises. Many pets are afraid of these noises. Fearful pets are having an involuntary emotional and physiological reaction to noises they perceive as scary. They are not dumb, they are not trying to be dominant and they should not be punished. Our responsibility as pet owners is treating them humanely and with respect while helping them with these fears.

Fear of noises can develop after a traumatic experience, but most often this is not the case for pets. Many trained pets have noise phobias or fears. Pets do not just “get over it” or “get used to it” or “grow out of it.” If their fears are not addressed, they will worsen with time.

Signs of fear and anxiety may include: pacing, panting, drooling, shaking/trembling, hiding, clinginess, barking, whining, howling, inability to settle, destructive behavior, defecating, urinating, vomiting, excessive licking or chewing, trying to get outside or climb a window/door and climbing on furniture. Self-injury may occur as a result of some of these fearful behaviors.

Do not force your pet to be near a noise that is scary. Do not confine your pet to a crate to prevent them from being destructive, as this may lead to worse injuries while they move frantically in the crate. Never punish your pet for being afraid, as this only leads to more fear and distrust in your relationship. Reassuring your pet or giving treats during the fearful noise may reinforce the behavior; try to act normally when your pet is afraid.

So what should you do?

First try to see if your pet goes to a particular area of your home during these fearful noises. If you are able, allow access to these spaces and create a calming environment with beds, treats and toys in those areas. You can also create a safe place by finding an area that is dark, small and shielded from sound as much as possible. You can play white noise, use a fan or play different kinds of music to help drown out the sound. (Try music from throughadogsear.com and simplynoise.com.) Feed your pet in this location, and give treats and massages so your pet has positive experiences in this area. At first, this should be done when there are no frightening noises occurring. Your pet should be able to leave this space freely, so they should not be trapped. Try spraying a towel or bed in the area with dog- or cat-appeasing pheromones or use a pheromone plugin in that area.

Try to redirect your pet’s attention during the noises by engaging in an activity that is fun for your pet. This could be playing with a new squeaky toy, a food puzzle or treat that has especially yummy food in it, working on training commands or giving a massage. Try to start these activities before the noises occur.

Counterconditioning and desensitization are behavioral modification techniques that can be helpful for reducing fears. These are done gradually and consistently. With noises, the goal is to try to have your pet become exposed to the scary noise at a level/volume that will not provoke fear and pairing that noise at that level/volume with something positive for your pet (like treats, attention, playing a game, working on tricks/commands, massage, etc.). The reward will be something different for each pet and will be specific to your pet. Do these exercises in the safe spot if possible. Find a recording of the scary noise and start it at the lowest volume that will not provoke anxious/stressful behavior. The only reaction you should see when the sound is first turned on is a mild orienting to the sound or mild signs of anxiety/stress that go away after 10 to 30 seconds. Once your pet has become accustomed to that noise at that volume, gradually increase the volume. If you increase the volume and fearful behavior develops, stop the noise and return to the previous volume that did not elicit those behaviors. You can try to add more elements to the training as you progress to imitate the real-life experience, although this may be difficult with some noises. This method is most effective when done at least 2 months prior to the noisy season and at least 8 times per week.

Medication may be helpful, and in some cases necessary, to help alleviate anxiety and also allow your pet to relax enough to be able to learn new behaviors. If you had to learn how to drive a car while someone had a loaded gun to your head, your brain probably wouldn’t be able to focus and learn under that kind of fear and stress! The same thing goes for your pets. Talk to your Oaklawn veterinarian early about types of medications that can help.

There are non-pharmaceutical options that may help, too. Some examples include the Thundershirt, dog-appeasing pheromones such as Adaptil, supplements and prescription diets with calming ingredients, Mutt Muffs and the Storm Defender, a cape-like wrap with a light metallic lining that may help with the electrostatic charge during thunderstorms.

Remember, your veterinarian or a trained veterinary behaviorist is your best resource. Every pet is different, and every behavioral modification plan is a tailored one. One size does not fit all! Not everything recommended will help. Some noise fears and phobias can be more challenging to treat than others.

We believe every pet deserves to live without fear and panic, and we are here to partner with you and your pet to make that reality possible.