Kristen Levine was on a quest to help her dog, Chilly, during fireworks season and thunderstorms.
“The sound of fireworks would send him into a state of panic, and he would leave claw marks on my closet door and pull my dresses right off of the hangers to make himself a pile of clothes to lay in,” recalls Levine. “For the first eight years of his life, we tried various treatments, some more effective than others.”
If only noise-phobic dogs and cats could press the mute button on Fourth of July fireworks. Or silence booming thunderstorms. Or quiet the neighbor’s old heap that backfires when gears are shifted.
Dogs and cats sport far superior hearing abilities than humans, and that includes the ability to tune into low- and high-pitched sounds. But for pets afraid of certain noises, being able to out-hear people is a skill they would prefer not to possess. They often shake, hide, or try to bolt out doors or break through windows to escape these frightening sounds.
Studies indicate that about one in every three dogs in the United States suffers from noise aversions that can progress to noise phobias. And undocumented numbers of cats suffer in silence.
“The big problem with noise phobias and aversions is that the longer they are allowed to go on without proper intervention, the worse they become and the greater probability that other phobias will surface in that pet,” says Jason Nicholas, BVetMed, chief medical officer of PreventiveVet.com, in Portland, Oregon. “That’s why prevention and taking a proactive approach are so critically important because reactions to noises are impacting the quality of life for dogs and cats.”
Levine, a national pet-living expert, is a Fear Free advocate and founder of the Pet Anxiety Awareness campaign that takes place every June. Chilly, a sweet black Labrador, would turn into a puddle of panic when within hearing ranging of fireworks or other loud sounds.
“A dog who suffers from noise aversion may experience the equivalent of what a human would during a panic attack,” says Levine. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching pets pant, drool, whine, hide, or even harm themselves because they suffer from fear, anxiety, or stress.”
These emotional states affect the neurochemical reaction in a pet’s brain, says Dr. Nicholas, triggering an array of signs from mild to extreme. Common responses of noise-reactive dogs and cats:
* Freezing in place
* Barking or meowing excessively
* Hiding under beds or in closets
* Becoming reactive or aggressive when touched
* Grooming excessively to the point of pulling out fur or licking paws raw
* Injuring self to try to escape the sound
Fortunately, noise phobia is a condition that has merited increased attention from pet professionals – and pet parents. While there is no one solution that effectively addresses noise phobia in all dogs and cats, tactics include behavior modification techniques, the use of anti-anxiety products and clothing, and the administering of calming medications.
And it takes a partnership between the pet parent and the veterinarian to give the pet a better chance as coping with noise phobias in a healthy manner.
For starters, remember that your pet is reading your emotional state. Baby talk or high-pitched tones can send some sound-scared pets into further panic states.
“Some pets respond best to calm, even tones spoken by you or to Tellington Touch techniques on their ears,” says Dr. Nicholas. “Others prefer distractions like playing fetch or engaging in a friendly game of tug in the house during a storm. Some fare better wearing anti-anxiety vests or listening to white noise to block out the fear-generating sound.”
Chemical calmers range from over-the-counter pheromone sprays and diffusers that help some pets calm down in stressful situations to prescription medications from your veterinarian. Common prescriptions to address fear, anxiety, and stress in pets include benzodiazepines, clonidine, clomipramine, fluoxetine, gabapentin, and trazodone.
Last year, Levine learned about a medication called Sileo (dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel), the first FDA-approved treatment for dogs who suffer from noise aversions, and discussed this option with her veterinarian.
“We tried it and it worked beautifully,” she says. “Chilly spent last July 4th awake and calm. Since then, we use Sileo every time we expect thunder or fireworks. It acts fast.”
Dr. Nicholas’s parting advice: “Work with your veterinarian and/or a board-certified applied animal behaviorist to come with a plan that works best for your specific pet and realize that your pet’s level of response to noises can change from one month or one year to the next.”
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.