Fear of Fireworks and Other Noise Phobias
It is unknown why some pets become afraid of noises such as thunder and fireworks; it is a common problem in dogs, but less so 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, fireworks, gunshots, and even the sound of birds.
A recent study has found that certain breeds of dogs have an above average risk of developing noise phobias. These include some of the working and sporting breeds such as Collies, German Shepherds, Beagles, and Basset Hounds. This survey was quite small, however, and more research needs to be done in this area. The study also found that dogs who had separation anxiety were more likely to also have noise and thunderstorm phobias.
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 overly comfort the animal, the animal interprets it as confirming there really is something to be afraid of. The over petting or comforting is really positive reinforcement of an undesirable behaviour.
What are the signs of noise phobia?
Different animals may display different signs of noise phobias which include:
Consult with a veterinarian if your pet is showing signs of noise phobia. They can help develop a treatment plan for your pet.
- Hiding (most common sign 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
- Dilated pupils
- Vocalizing (barking or meowing)
How is noise phobia treated?
There is no guarantee that a noise phobia can be totally resolved, but in many instances the fear can be managed effectively. The effectiveness of treatment depends on a number of factors including the severity of the phobia; how long the pet has had it; whether it is ongoing, seasonal, or unpredictable; and the amount of time the owner is willing to commit to the behaviour modification techniques.
The first thing to remember is that you should refrain from giving excessive attention or punishment for fearful behaviour. Constant petting or consoling may be interpreted by the pet as a reward for the fearful response. In the event of over 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. Instead, project confidence, and give your dog attention in the form of playing, grooming, or other activities your pet enjoys.
Usually treatment includes three other factors: medications, changing the environment, and behaviour modification.
Administer medications: Medications may be given individually or in combination. In some instances, the medication may be administered during an entire thunderstorm season. Others may be given when a storm or noisy event (New Years Eve fireworks) is expected.
Alternative therapies have also been used with some success. Pheromones, such as dog appeasing pheromone (DAP), and cat facial pheromones found in Feliway® products may help some pets.
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 of 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 internal laundry or a room without outside walls or windows may decrease the noise level. Closing the windows and curtains can also help reduce the noise.
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. (Some have hypothesized that a pet may feel less static electricity if on tile or porcelain.) 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, which could dramatically increase the stress level. Some pets, especially cats, may find that a closet or area under the bed makes a good 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.
Maintain good health and nutrition: Health problems may increase the stress level of pets, and increase their anxiety. Poor diets have been linked to some behavioural problems. Consult your veterinarian if you would like advice about changing your pet's diet.
Behaviour modification: Special techniques can be used to help change the animal's response to the noise.
Counter conditioning: Using counter conditioning, the animal is taught to display an acceptable behaviour rather than an unacceptable one as a response to a certain stimulus. In this way, a negative stimulus can become associated with a positive event. For instance, the only time the pet gets his absolutely most favourite treat, game, or toy, is just prior to and during a thunderstorm. Dogs who enjoy travelling may be taken for a car ride, or cats who love catnip, may be given their favourite catnip mouse. (Dogs who enjoy swimming will need to wait inside until the storm is over!) After a time, the pet will start associating an oncoming storm with getting to have his favourite thing.
Desensitisation: Using desensitisation, the animal's response is decreased while he is exposed to increasing levels of the fear-producing stimulus. For noise phobias, the animal is taught to be calm when the noise level is low, and then the noise level is gradually increased. This process is generally more successful in dogs than cats. It works best during the 'off' season for thunderstorms. To desensitise a pet to thunderstorms:
- Teach your pet the command 'calm' in the absence of any noise. When your pet is lying quietly, gently pet him and say the command 'calm' or 'settle'. If the pet would get up or become more active, wait until your pet relaxes again. When your pet is relaxed, provide a very tasty treat every 10 seconds or so. Continue saying the command and giving treats several times provided the pet does stay relaxed. Repeat this several times a day and gradually extend the time your pet needs to be relaxed before he gets his treat. Once your pet can relax on command, you are ready to proceed.
- Obtain a commercial Noise CD of a storm, or tape record one yourself (commercial products generally work better). Play the recording at normal volume to determine if it will induce the fear response. If it does, continue with the desensitisation; if not, you will need to obtain a different recording. For some animals, a recording alone may not work, since there may be a combination of occurrences that provokes fear, e.g.; thunder plus lightning or changes in barometric pressure. For these animals, darkening the room and adding strobe lights may more closely mimic the storm, and may need to be included in the desensitisation process.
- Play the recording at a volume low enough that the pet is aware of the sound, but it does not induce a fear response. For instance, the ears may be cocked towards the source of the sound, but you still have the pet's attention. In some instances, that may mean the pet needs to be in a different room from where the recording is playing. While the recording is playing at the low level, either have him relax or engage the pet in an activity in which you give the commands, such as obedience training or performing tricks. Give food or other rewards during the activity when the pet accomplishes what he is supposed to. If the animal shows signs of fear, stop and try again the next day, playing the recording at an even lower level. It is important that the pet not be rewarded while he is fearful or anxious. Sessions should last about 5-10 minutes.
- If the animal does not respond fearfully, during the next session, increase the volume slightly. Again, involve the pet in an activity or have the dog 'relax' and reward him for obeying commands. Continue increasing the volume gradually for each session. If the pet starts to show fear, decrease the volume. Repeat the sessions in various rooms of the house and with various family members present.
- When the pet does not show fear when the recording is played at a loud volume, you may want to try playing the recording for a short time while you are absent. Gradually increase the time you are gone while the recording is playing.
- When the pet appears to have lost his fear, the sessions can be reduced to one per week. In most instances, these sessions will need to be repeated weekly for the life of the pet.
During an actual storm, use the same activities and rewards you used in the training sessions.
To increase the chances of successful desensitisation, the training process should take place during a time of the year when the actual noise will not be encountered: if the pet is afraid of thunder or fireworks, try desensitisation during the winter. In most instances, it is best to discontinue any behaviour-modifying medications during the desensitisation process. Consult with your veterinarian before discontinuing any medications.