Overcoming Noise Phobia in Dogs and Cats
Fear of loud noises, including sounds of thunder, fireworks, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, and much more, is a common problem in many cats and dogs. A phobia is a fear that is consistent, persistent, and irrational. Some dogs with noise phobias become hysterical, catatonic or panic to the point of injuring themselves or destroying the house, while cats are often found hiding under beds, appliances, or in closets, but have even been known to climb into walls in an attempt to get away from a terrifying sound. There is no simple solution to treating a noise phobia. It may take most or all of the steps outlined below.
Provide a Safe Room
The bathtub, a closet, a crate or enclosed bed (if the pet chooses to go there voluntarily) or a corner of a dark room may work to create a "safe room" for your pet. The idea is to try, whenever possible, to find a room that is far away from the noise, but that your pet will often go to willingly.
Provide bedding, toys, water, smelly human clothing, high value treats and possibly a fan, radio or TV to create “white noise” in the safe room. You should also offer a high value treat, one that is irresistible even during times of stress. If you are present during your pet's panic, encourage them into the room and keep your pet calm, using soft tones of voice (no shouting or punishment), petting, massage and treats.
Try telling your dog to “sit, stay, relax” and give rewards. You can also try Thundershirts (dogs), Dog Appeasing Pheromone, Feliway for cats, calming treats, a head collar (dogs) or a leash if these things help your pet calm down. Let your pet come out of the safe room when he or she is ready and give more rewards. If this does not work by itself, go to the next step.
Medications for Fear of Loud Noises
Serious noise phobias require at least temporary anti-anxiety medications during therapy. Tranquilizers are not recommended because they sedate the pet without decreasing the anxiety. The purpose of medications is to reduce the level of anxiety so that behavior modification for the fearful behaviors can be started. If your pet is not adequately relaxed, any training or desensitizing you try will have little lasting results.
Your veterinarian can prescribe a fast-acting drug for you to give as needed when the sounds are unavoidable (like a thunderstorm or fireworks) to prevent panic and destruction. Give this drug an hour ahead of time if possible. Recommended drugs are alprazolam, clonazepam, and diazepam. A maintenance drug is also prescribed which may take a few weeks to reach therapeutic blood levels, such as clomipramine, fluoxetine, paroxetine, and trazadone for dogs and cats, and gabapentin and buspirone in cats.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
Desensitization and counter-conditioning is the behavior modification therapy mentioned earlier. Basically, it's exposing your pet to the scary noise in small, controlled doses to get them used to hearing it without reacting in fear and panic.
You begin by teaching your pet to relax on command. Use “sit, stay, relax” starting in a location where your dog is already relaxed and then work up to situations (non-noise related) that cause anxiety, such as getting a bath, meeting a new person or dog, going to the vet or riding in the car. Your dog gets rewarded when he is following your commands but is also relaxed. You have to be relaxed and use your “happy voice” so that he knows there is no danger. You can use the same technique for cats, usually without using the verbal cue to “sit” and “stay”, using very yummy treats.
Now you can start exposing your pet to a very low level of the offending noise, so low that the dog or cat has no reaction to it. While listening to the noise, you use all of the calming techniques we have talked about. The best source of the noises are CDs or mp3 downloads (ie. Calm Pet has 18 different sounds) you can purchase online. Remember, the initial volume setting may be so low you (human) cannot hear it. Repeat the exercise daily or twice a day for 10-15 minutes, and if your pet remains relaxed and calm, then increase the noise to the next level. If he/she starts to act fearful (panting, pacing, trembling, escaping) go back to the previous level for a few more exercises.
Thunderstorm phobias are more difficult to resolve, because we cannot duplicate the lightning, changes in barometric pressure, and other aspects that trigger the fear response. The more therapy you can do during actual storms, the better.
You should see progress within one month, and eventually, your pet will be listening to the sound at the scary level without reacting. If your pet has been on medications during this process, you'll begin to taper off the medications at this time. Some dogs and cats with high anxiety and multiple phobias may need to stay on a long-acting drug for life. You will also taper off the therapy sessions to every other day, weekly, and then monthly.
Although it can be difficult to address fear responses to noises in your pet, it is possible to overcome these responses with time and dedication. Keep the safe room available when you are not home until you are certain your pet does not need it anymore. You may want to consider using the safe room for life, as your pet can utilize the things there to self-soothe during times of stress of any kind.
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