It is unknown why some pets become afraid of noises; it is a common problem in dogs but less in cats. The fear can soon become a phobia, which is defined as a persistent, excessive, and irrational fear response. In the case of thunderstorms, pets may also be fearful of storm-associated events such as a change in barometric pressure, lightning, electrostatic disturbances, and even smells associated with the storms. Noise phobias can include fear of thunderstorms, firecrackers, gunshots, an even the sound of birds.
A noise phobia may be traced to a particular bad experience of a noise, but often, no triggering event can be ascertained. In almost all instances, the fear of noises and storms escalates, worsening with each exposure. Soon the pet may become fearful of similar sounds or events associated with the noise. For example, a pet afraid of thunder may also become afraid of rain, or a dog afraid of gunshots may show fear at the mere sight of a hunting rifle.
The owner’s attitude can influence the severity of the fear. For instance, if owners themselves are nervous during storms, noise phobias in their pets may occur more often or become more severe. Similarly, if the owner attempts to comfort the animal, the animal interprets it as confirming there really is something to be afraid of. The petting or comforting is really reinforcement of an undesirable behavior.
What are the signs of noise phobia?
Different animals may display different signs of noise phobias which include:
· Hiding (most common in cats)
· Trying to escape (digging, jumping through windows or going through walls, running away)
· Seeking the owner
· Expressing anal glands
· Not eating
· Not listening to commands
· Trembling or shaking
· Dilating pupils
· Vocalizing (barking or meowing)
How is noise phobia treated?
There is no “cure” for noise phobia, but there are ways to try to reduce the fear. First, refrain from giving rewards or punishments. This is extremely important. Petting, consoling, or even saying, “It’s OK,” may be interpreted by the pet as a reward for the fearful response. In the event of comforting a dog during a storm, for example, it may signal to the pet that the storm really is something he should be afraid of. Similarly, the pet should not be punished for showing fear. This will only increase his anxiety level. Usually treatment includes three other facets: medications, changing the environment, and behavior modification.
· Change environment: By changing the environment of the animal during the storm or noise, the anxiety level can be reduced. Changing the environment may reduce the volume level for the sound or help make the pet less aware of it.
· Increase vigorous exercise: The pet should receive vigorous exercise daily and more so on a day when the fear-producing noise is likely to occur. The exercise will help to tire the animal, both mentally and physically, and may make her less responsive to the noise. In addition, exercise has the effect of increasing natural serotonin levels, which can act as a sedative.
· Reduce or block the noise level: “White noise”, such as running a fan or air conditioner may aid in blocking out some of the fear-producing noise. Playing a TV or radio can have a similar effect. Allowing the pet access to the basement or a room without outside walls or windows may decrease the noise level. Closing the windows and curtains can also help reduce the noise. Some owners have placed foam earplugs or cotton balls in their pets’ ears.
· Create a safe haven: Some pets feel more comfortable in a small space such as a crate or a small room like a bathroom (run the fan and leave the lights on). Some pets seek out the safety of the bathtub or shower during a storm. If the pet is comfortable in a crate, the crate can be covered with a blanket to add to the feeling of security. The door to the crate should be left open and the pet should not be confined to the crate. If the door is closed then this could dramatically increase the stress level. Some pets, especially cats, may find that a closet or area under the bed makes a great retreat.
· Project a calm attitude: Pets are very aware of the mental state of their owners. If you are worried or nervous, this will add to the pet’s fear. Your pet will look to you for direction so keep an “upbeat” and “in charge” attitude.
Fear of thunderstorms and other forms of noise phobia are common problems in dogs and some cats. Administering medications along with changing the pet’s environment and using behavior modification techniques can help ease the fear. Above all, do not give our pet any attention or reward when he is showing signs of fear. This will only reinforce the fearful behavior.
For more information about medications you can give to ease your pets fears contact our office at 970-264-2629.