Crash! Boom! Whether a thunder clap or an exploding firework, sudden noises can make anyone jump. But, some dogs and cats experience intense distress and fear when they hear a loud sound—a condition that can put them at risk for dangerous behavior and negatively affect their quality of life.
If your pet shakes during a storm or gets frantic over fireworks, check out the following information from University Veterinary Hospital, and then speak to your pet’s veterinarian.
What is noise aversion in pets?
Noise aversion (i.e., noise phobia, noise sensitivity) is a behavior disorder that affects more than one-third of U.S. dogs. Unfortunately, noise aversion often goes undiagnosed, because owners don’t think the condition is abnormal and needs mentioning to their veterinarian. Noise-averse dogs—and less often cats—demonstrate a hypersensitive response to loud noises and feel emotional distress similar to a human panic attack.
Pets with noise aversion may exhibit a range of reactions, including:
- Hiding or cowering
- Destructive behavior (e.g., digging, chewing, scratching)
- House soiling
- Misplaced aggression (i.e., pets may “take it out” on a nearby pet)
While many pets become acclimated once they realize a loud noise is non-threatening, noise-averse pets can become progressively fearful toward new, unfamiliar, or sudden sounds, worsening to a generalized anxiety disorder if they go undiagnosed and untreated, and causing them to live in a continuous state of agitation and apprehension.
What causes noise aversion in pets?
Pets can develop sensitivity to noise for several reasons or a combination of reasons. The most commonly recognized causes include:
- Genetic predisposition — Although information is limited, a genetic component for noise aversion is possible.
- Inadequate socialization — Pets who are raised in a quiet environment without proper socialization (i.e., positive experiences with loud or sudden sounds) may feel threatened by unfamiliar or unpredictable sounds.
- Negative associations — Pets may associate a negative or painful experience (e.g., receiving a vaccine) with an unassociated sound (e.g., a slamming door) that occurred at the same time.
- Generalizations — While a pet may initially react to a rare but significant sound, such as thunder, they may gradually generalize all sounds—including everyday household appliances, such as vacuums and coffee grinders—as frightening.
How can I help my pet be less afraid?
First, you must recognize that noise aversion is a medical condition—and, therefore, can be diagnosed and managed by your University Veterinary Hospital veterinarian. Because other conditions (e.g., pain) can make pets hypersensitive, we’ll first gather a full history of your pet’s behavior and perform a comprehensive physical examination. If we diagnose noise aversion, we will formulate a treatment plan based on your pet’s severity and known triggers (e.g., thunderstorms, fireworks).
Treatment goals typically include reducing your pet’s anxiety, limiting exposure to the upsetting sound, and modifying their behavior by forming new associations with the offensive sound.
- Anxiety reduction — Fear, anxiety, and stress damage your pet’s health, safety, and wellbeing. Medications, including anxiety-reducers, sedatives, or noise aversion medicines, are commonly used to provide rapid relief for anxious pets. However, medications can help only with temporary distress (e.g., pets who are frightened only by annual fireworks), and are not a long-term solution unless used with the other methods.
- Exposure control (i.e., environmental management) — Reduce your pet’s negative reactions and help them feel more secure by limiting their exposure to frightening sounds by:
- Creating a safe space for your pet in your home where they can retreat during noisy events
- Playing white noise during a thunderstorm or fireworks display
- Promoting calmness and security with pheromone sprays, anti-anxiety wraps (e.g., ThunderShirts), and aromatherapy
- Preoccupying your pet with safe distractions such as food-stuffed toys and long-lasting chews during the potentially upsetting sound or event—eating and chewing naturally relax your pet, making them feel more satisfied and less concerned about what’s happening
- Desensitization and counterconditioning — Gradual exposure training with a positive reinforcement trainer or a veterinary behaviorist can help your pet learn that noises are harmless, and reduce or eliminate their dangerous or inappropriate reactions. This re-learning must proceed slowly to prevent relapse.
How can pet owners protect their noise-averse pets?
Noise-sensitive pets are at risk for life-altering or life-ending behaviors, such as running away, being hit by a car, or harming themselves while trying to escape from a crate, home, or other confinement.
Before, during, and after your pet’s noise aversion treatment, be proactive about keeping them safe, including:
- Ensuring your pet wears identification — Keep your pet’s tags and microchip information up-to-date.
- Planning your pet’s outings — Never take your pet to a loud event, such as a concert or fireworks display. Consider boarding your pet if you anticipate noise at home (e.g., construction, a party).
- Avoiding flooding — Don’t immerse your pet in loud noises, hoping that they will “get over it.” This technique—known as flooding—will only worsen their fear and anxiety.
- Reassuring your pet — Contrary to popular belief, you cannot reinforce fear by reassuring your pet when they are scared. Talk calmly and comfort your pet during their stress.
Noise aversion can significantly interrupt and impair your pet’s life by creating intense, overwhelming fear at the drop of a hat. Ease your pet’s distress, and help them learn they have nothing to fear with help and treatment from the caring University Veterinary Hospital veterinary team. Contact us and schedule a consultation about your pet’s behavioral problems.