Fireworks phobias – alleviating the anguish
Many people know that dogs and cats have extremely sensitive hearing and are able to hear things at higher and lower frequencies and volumes than their human guardians but this does not mean that all dogs or cats will be scared of noises. Loud noises may cause some pets to experience fear and this ranges from mild fear (noise aversion or noise reactive) all the way to intense panic conditions in the true noise phobias.
Anxiety and fear, while related, are quite different emotions. Anxiety is the apprehensive anticipation of threat – experiencing both physical and emotional reactions to something that hasn’t even happened yet but that has resulted in fear, pain or distress in the past while fear is a physical and emotional reaction to a specific stimulus. Fear responses are usually categorised into the four Fs – flight, fight, freeze or fiddle – ways that the animal responds physically to something frightening or stressful in their environment but which is also accompanied by the emotional component of feeling scared.
What do each of these responses look like?
Flight – attempts to escape the noise which can lead to an animal pacing, running around and not being able to settle anywhere
Fight – some dogs will run outside and bark at the noise to try and chase it away
Freeze – some animals show very fearful body language and become a bit catatonic – they won’t eat food you offer them and don’t respond to any attempts to get them to engage in other things
Fiddle – some animals may just scratch more, sniff their environment or engage in other displacement techniques such as excessive grooming.
Animals may also tremble, pant, drool and have sweaty paws. Cats tend to hide their fear and anxiety and so people seldom recognise fear of noises with their cats but this does not mean that the cat is not scared and suffering as a result.
There is no single theory for why some animals are scared of loud noises and other aren’t but what most do agree on is that genetics, early socialisation, learning and the environment the animal lives in all contribute to the development of noise phobia. Some animals have other problems in addition to their noise phobia such as separation anxiety or generalised anxiety whereas some animals are only fearful of loud noises. Some animals become worse over time, reacting to increasingly more noises (generalisation of the fear) and having a worse reaction each time and some are only ever fearful of one particular noise.
How can we help our pets?
If your pet has a severe reaction to loud noises, the bad news is that treating this condition takes a long time and there are no quick fixes.
However, there are many things that you can do to help your pet cope in the meantime:
- Your veterinarian can dispense some medication that can help to keep your pet calm during the event. These usually need to be administered 30 min to 1 hour before the event but their response can be quite variable so it is often necessary to test the dose before the actual event and you must be around to monitor their response. Cats are often harder to administer medication to and this is sometimes a barrier to helping them.There are also some over the counter products but these will not be helpful for a pet who has a severe reaction to noises. But if your pet is one who experiences milder reactions to sounds, these are a nice way to help them feel a little calmer.
- Species specific pheromones such as Adaptil® for dogs and Feliway® for cats may help some pets to feel less anxious. The diffusers can be plugged in close to your pet’s safe haven and the spray can be used on a bandana or ThunderShirt. You can also apply the spray liberally to the pet’s blanket, bed or hiding place.
- While you are at the veterinary clinic, you can get your pet microchipped or make sure that their current microchip is working so that if they do escape or get lost, they can be returned to you.
- Create a safe place for your pet
- Inside is best as it helps to muffle the noise and prevents escape
- Close doors and windows, draw curtains or blinds
- If your pet wants to climb into your shoe cupboard or hide under the bed, let them.
- If your pet is crate trained, draping the crate with a heavy blanket can also muffle sound.
- Sound masking may help some pets – white noise such as a fan blowing or a radio tuned to static, classical music or the TV playing, can all help to drown out the sounds of other noises but be careful of using music or sounds that may make your pet more fearful.
- Distraction – if your pet still has an interest in food during this time, a food toy stuffed with delicious tinned food, peanut butter or plain yoghurt for example and frozen can be provided as a distraction.
- If you need to take your dog out to the toilet during this time, make sure their harness or lead is secure and that they can’t escape your property. Remember to supply a litter tray inside for cats that normally go outdoors to the toilet.
- There is nothing wrong with comforting your pet during this time. You are not going to teach them to be fearful of noises, they are already fearful and you can help them to feel better by giving them comfort. The most important this is to let them dictate what they need. If you try and hold them and they get more panicked, rather back off whereas if they want to sit on your lap and be stroked, then try and take the time to do this. Soothing massage, especially if you know any T-touch techniques, can really help.
Once the event is over, try and make a plan to see a veterinary behaviourist who can compile a treatment plan that can ultimately help your pet to have a better quality of life.