The summertime is usually an enjoyable time of year where pets can appreciate more of the outdoors and longer days for activities. For some pet parents though, it can be a very stressful time of year with unpredictable thunderstorms and random fireworks amongst other noises, such as motorcycles or construction. Does your pet start to panic when they hear thunder, a firework, or other loud noise? This is unfortunately a relatively common problem known as noise phobia or noise aversion; it can affect more than two thirds of pets. Signs of fear that may be displayed include trembling or shaking, hiding, panting, pacing, vocalization (whining to barking), cowering, hypervigilance, lip licking or yawning, drooling, clinginess, destruction or trying to escape. With time, the more subtle signs of fear can worsen or progress. Untreated noise aversion can even lead to or worsen other anxieties, such as separation anxiety or generalized anxiety.
Being proactive and trying to intervene early can help your pet. The first step involves management and trying to avoid the noise if possible. This is easier done with things in your control, such as the noisy vacuum cleaner, but can be difficult with things out of our control, such as the neighborhood fireworks and thunderstorms. The Fourth of July holiday is the one time of year where I don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night when it is quiet, so my dogs are not scared by an unexpected firework while they are doing their business. The other thing you can do is try to adjust the environment to help make your pet feel calmer and more comfortable. There are calming pheromones available that are plug-in diffuser form (Feliway for cats, Adaptil for dogs) that can help relax pets by sending chemical signals to the brain. A thunder shirt can help some pets, as the wrap creates gentle constant pressure. White noise machines can help to drown out the sounds, as well as leaving some calming instrumental music or a TV on. Creating a safe place for your pet can be important as well. This can be a crate, closet, or even under the bed if that is where they are able to feel most relaxed.
The next step besides management is behavior modification. This means to work to change the emotional and behavioral response to the noise. The first part of this is called desensitization. With desensitization, we want to make sure that we are not making the pet uncomfortable, but working under their fear threshold. In the case of noise phobias, this means playing the noise at the lowest of intensities where your pet hears the noise, but does not become stressed. The second part is known as counterconditioning, which is where we pair the noise with something amazing (favorite toys/games or tasty high value treats). This means they hear the noise, and the reward appears. Gradually with time the noise intensity can be increased as your pet becomes comfortable. Eventually, your pet will be looking forward to their reward when they hear the noise, thus changing their emotional response. With every clap of thunder or firework, rewarding with a tasty treat or fun toy can help to increase their resiliency and change their emotional response over time, even if they are very worried. If your pet is too stressed to initially eat, consider looking for an even higher valued reward. The third thing that can be done is rewarding calmer behaviors at home at any time throughout the day. If you reinforce your dog laying down often, then they are more likely to offer this behavior even in stressful situations. The final thing that can be considered if your pet’s fear has more subtle signs includes giving one of the over-the-counter supplements that were discussed in our recent email to clients.
In some cases, the above behavior modification/training will not be enough on its own, especially if your pet has already progressed in their fear responses. It is in these cases when medication options are instituted. Remember: medication alone will not be the solution to your dog’s noise phobia! The goal of medication is to increase your pet’s fear threshold so they can learn, and we have more effective behavior modification sessions. Each pet can respond differently to medication, so make sure you set up a time to discuss medications early; this way, doses and/or type of medication can be adjusted based on each individual pet’s response. Noise phobias can be challenging, and if your pet’s noise phobia is severe, causing self-trauma, or worsening even with modification, we can also refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Finally, with the Fourth of July fast approaching, make sure your pet’s microchip information and contact information on collars is up to date in case your pet escapes, so there is an increased chance of them finding their way home. Please let us know if you have any questions about noise phobias and management. If you need help with any of the discussed behavior modification steps, ask us about positive reinforcement trainers in our area. Also, check out fearfreehappyhomes.com for more information and videos about noise phobias.