By Nikki Senecal
When I was growing up, we had a 125-pound Doberman Pinscher. Many people were scared of Humphrey, but there was only one thing he was frightened by: thunder. At the first sign of a summer storm, he would huddle under the dining room table shaking pathetically. It made you want to crawl under the table to hug and reassure him.
That, it turns out, is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Animals who are frightened by loud noises—like thunder or 4th of July fireworks–shouldn’t be babied; that can reinforce the fearful behavior. Nor should you punish an animal for his fears.
Finding A Place to Feel Safe
Letting your dog or cat find a place where they feel safe, however, is one of the many things you can do to help ease phonophobia, whether the cause is thunderstorms, fireworks, or the vacuum cleaner. Allow your cat to hide out under the bed or in a small space. Perhaps put a bed in a closet and let them know it is there. Leave your dog’s crate open—and throw a blanket over it to create a more cave-like space. Rabbits and guinea pigs should be given extra bedding, so they can burrow for comfort. Wherever your pet finds comfort, don’t try to lure them out; it could increase their stress.
When you know loud noises will occur, like the upcoming 4th of July holiday, your pets should be inside. Make sure the doors and windows are closed, in case the stress causes your pet to attempt an escape. To prepare for this possibility, make sure Fluffy and Fido’s tags are attached and up-to-date.
You could try turning on a radio or television loudly to drown out the outdoor sounds. Your pet is used to having strange sounds come from these devices.
Desensitization training may work for your dog. This technique involves exposing your dog to low levels of the anxiety producing noise while performing positive activities, like obedience training or playing games. However, trainers usually recommend starting this training before you need the dog to behave. Dogs who are afraid of fireworks, should be trained during the winter, for example.
Find a recording of the noise that your pet is afraid of. While playing the sounds at a barely audible volume, engage your pet in an activity like obedience or trick training. Give food or other rewards during the activity when the pet accomplishes what he is supposed to. If your dog shows signs of fear, stop and try again later, playing the recording at an even lower level. It is important that you don’t reward your pup while he is fearful or anxious. Sessions should last about five to 10 minutes.
As training progresses, gradually increase the volume for each session. Because dogs aren’t good at generalizing, you should repeat the exercise in various rooms. When your pup does not show fear when the recording is played at a loud volume, you may want to try playing the recording when you are away from the house for a short time. When Fido appears to have lost his fear, the sessions can be reduced to one per week. These sessions may need to be repeated at regular intervals over the course of your time together. Finally, during a storm or the Fourth of July, use the same activities and rewards you used in the training sessions.
- Appeasing pheromones are available for both dogs (DAP) and cats (Feliway). These chemicals mimic the pheromones produced by lactating mothers that give puppies and kittens a sense of well-being. The result is a calmer, less stressed animal.
- Melatonin can be used in both dogs and cats. Several articles published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association show that melatonin has a sedative effect. One trainer I know uses it for her German Shepherds who are afraid of thunderstorms.
- Other medications, like xanax, can be prescribed by your veterinarian if your pet has more severe anxiety.
Although some of these treatments are available without a prescription, you should discuss all of these options with your vet.
Anxiety Wrap – According to some experts, pressure applied to large areas of the body can be comforting. Although no scientific studies have been done on this therapy, T-Touch and Temple Grandin’s “Hug Machine” are both examples of this theory put in practice. There are a number of “maintained pressure” jackets available on the market.
Whatever you do, project a calm attitude. Your pet looks to you for guidance. If you show no fear, it may be calming for your rabbit, guinea pig, dog, or cat. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!