Some dogs and cats may develop fears in response to many different stimuli such as: noises, people, animals, cars, vacuums, or vet hospitals. These fears are caused by a combination of genetics and breed, brain chemistry and the effect of the early socialization period. One of the most common fears a pet may experience is fear of noise, in particular, fireworks, thunderstorms or alarms and in severe cases these are considered phobias.
A phobia is an extreme emotional and physical state of distress in response to a real or anticipated stimulus response. In this state the pet cannot do their usual activities (e.g. eating or sleeping) and are very focused on panicking or fleeing. As such they often injure themselves in attempt to get away from the stimulus. Pets that display this extreme response to a phobia should be assessed by a veterinarian.
What not to do
Never force a pet to face the fear of the noise as this will likely increase fear and stress. It may also be tempting to punish or reprimand your pet for their response to these fearful situations particularly when the behavior is annoying such as vocalizing, destroying furniture or escaping. However a negative response such as this will only contribute further to their anxiety and may reduce the cues that tell you your pet is distressed.
Avoid adding to the stress for milder events. If you are watching them closely and see a very mild response to an event it’s probably best to ignore their behaviour.
Avoid flooding the pet with the fear-inducing stimuli. Whilst a slightly anxious dog may be able to adjust, cope and relax the extremely fearful dog will not and their anxiety will worsen.
How to help
All pets with phobias should have a safe retreat e.g. a place they can go that they feel safe and protected. For cats this might be an elevated shelf or dark spot such as under the bed. For dogs this might be a dark cornea or comfortable quiet bed. In the case of fireworks or thunderstorms most pets prefer to be inside.
Guide them into a calmer response and coping strategy for severe events. This might include sitting with your dog and calmly stroking or massaging them. Make sure they have access to their safe retreat and water. If your pet is desperate for human interaction in these situations you should provide it where possible to reduce their anxiety.
Avoid fear-inducing situations where possible. This may seem obvious but until you have taught your pet coping strategies and gradually re-introduced the stimuli it is best to if possible, remove them from noisy situations.
Use pheromones! Feliway and Adaptil Pheromones are available to calm and reassure your pet in these situations. Speak to your vet for more information on pheromones.
For severe cases the best thing you can do is speak to your vet about a plan. The plan may include medication to alleviate your pet’s anxiety during these noisy events and for committed owners a desensitization program can be initiated.