What to do when a pet becomes scared by noise

Most pet owners anticipate spending at least part of the night of 5th November attempting to coax their dog or cat out from under the bed. It is an evitable response to the loud bangs, whistles and crashes of fireworks. However, many pets react equally as badly to more year-round sounds such as thunder or car alarms. It is actually quite a common occurrence and can be quite distressing to witness depending on the severity of the reaction.

It can sometimes be difficult to establish what triggers the fear response in animals, particularly dogs, who often hear sounds outside of our human hearing range. Sounds that may seem perfectly normal to us can be painfully loud for a dog. Age can be a factor too. Some puppies can show a marked fear response while other dogs can develop the problem as they get older. There is even some evidence of a breed disposition with typical herding breeds such as collies being more likely to suffer from fear of loud noises.

Signs to watch out for

  • Shaking or trembling
  • Being more clingy than usual and getting under your feet
  • Hiding under beds or behind sofas
  • Panting or ‘smiling’, the drawing back of lips over the front teeth
  • Whining
  • Urinating or pooing in the house
  • Panicked running or digging at the carpet or rug

It is important not to try to console your pet during this time. As odd as it sounds it can be counter-productive and your nervousness can make them think they are right to be scared. If you behave normally, they will take cues from your behaviour and begin to respond better themselves. Puppy training from an early age exposes a young dog to a wide variety of environments and novel stimuli, making them less likely to develop fear of new things in the future.

Some of these signs can be misinterpreted as ‘naughty’ behaviour and owners may not be aware that they are associated with fear. Do not to punish them as they will be unable to understand why they are being told off. Equally, forcing them to face their fears is not the right thing to do, it is ineffective and very unfair.

What can I do about it?

Luckily, there are some tricks you can try to help reduce your pet’s anxiety. Create a safe haven for them. If they regularly sleep in a crate, then cover it with blankets to make it cosy and dark. The blankets will also help muffle sound and bright flashes. It is a good idea to let them decide where their safe place will be, even if it’s under your bed. Forcing them into somewhere they are unfamiliar with will only increase their anxiety. Be sure to keep their favourite toys handy as well, the more familiar items they have near them, the more comforting the haven will become.

Play music or have the tv volume up a little higher that normal. Sometimes simply drowning out the frightening noise is enough to calm them down. This often works with older dogs as their hearing starts to wane with age.

If you know of any potential hazard in advance, for example, bonfire night, then taking them out for a good long walk before dark can help. Just being physically tired can reduce their response level. Distraction is a good idea too; play is a good way of diverting their attention away from what is going on outside the house.

These ideas are good starting points for helping your pet cope. The next step could be desensitisation training, exposing them to low-level noise in a controlled environment and slowly increase the volume over time. This can be effective but great care must be taken not to traumatise your pet and cause more suffering.  Due to this risk, it is usually only recommended on the advice of an animal behaviourist. There are also medications, anxiolytics, that a vet can prescribe in extreme cases of noise aversion but they are often ineffective on their own and many owners prefer not to drug their animals if it can be avoided.

What if I have a cat?

Cats show similar fear response behaviours to dogs in many ways. They can be skittish and often choose to hide in dark places or get high on top of cupboards and bookcases. Again, let the cat choose its own safe spot or provide a few boxes covered in blankets in an out the way place. Laundry rooms or boiler rooms are often a favourite as they are dark, warm and away from the bustle of the house. Like a dog, familiar smells are very comforting to a stressed cat.

Trust can be a significant issue with our feline friends and, unlike dogs, they do not always want to be near us for comfort. Give them opportunities to be near you if they wish but do not force them. Keep your movements gentle and give them space to escape should they need it. Drawing the curtains, blocking the cat flap and keeping the radio on low will help distract them from what is going on outside.