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Get sound advice for pets with noise phobia

Before a distant rumble and dark clouds could even alert us to an approaching storm, our dog, Jake, would get nervous. Panting heavily, he would push against us and look up, as if asking for help.

Many years ago, I had read what turned out to be very poor advice: to ignore the “scary” situation so I did not reinforce the idea that there was something to fear. Poor Jake would tremble as the rumbles grew louder until we got into the house, where he would slink from room to room. But I thought I was doing right by him.

Since then, but unfortunately too late for Jake, I’ve learned better. Noise phobia—the excessive fear of startling sounds such as fireworks, thunder, or gunshots—is a serious condition that may cause a pet to injure himself or damage property. 

What I know now: If your pet is scared by loud noises, it is not OK.

That’s the advice from Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach, Florida, and one of 69 board-certified animal behaviorists in the country.

Noise phobias are real problems for some dogs, and even some cats. After all, dogs can hear a wider range of frequencies than humans can, and cats can hear a higher pitch. Dogs and cats can also turn their ears, allowing them to take in surrounding sounds. Combine that with all of the other higher-functioning senses they possess and it’s easy to see why they are more easily affected.

In addition, genetics, early conditioning, exposure to alarming sounds, and even circumstances such as being shipped by plane may play roles in developing noise phobia.

If you think I should have just hugged Jake to reassure him, think again.

“It won’t help or hurt your dog if you hug,” says Radosta. “You cannot positively reinforce fear. In other words, hugging your dog won't make him more fearful. With that said, it also will not teach him coping skills, so he will not get better, either.”

Radosta says that research has not yet discovered all the pieces of this phobia puzzle. It has found that some products can help, though they can be a matter of trial and error.

These include:

  • Medications such as alprazolam or fluoxetine, on the advice of a veterinarian
  • Calming vests
  • Pheromone products that mimic the animal’s calming or appeasing natural pheromones
  • Nutraceuticals such as L-theanine, a water-soluble amino acid, or melatonin, a hormone
  • Soothing music or white noise

However, Radosta says the best solution is to give pets the ability to deal calmly with loud noises without their owners.

One of best ways to do that is to teach your pet to go to a safe place when he is afraid, she explains. For example, it might be his crate, a spot in the basement or a closet, or even under the bed. It should be fixed up to be a bunker-like place, insulated from the sounds and away from windows. When your pet is first getting used to it, help by engaging him with play, treats, or affection.

Start first, however, with an evaluation from your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. A professional can assess your pet’s level of fear, recommend possible treatment options, and develop a desensitization and counter-conditioning program to ease those periods of panic. 

Maureen Blaney Flietner, an award-winning freelance writer, photographer and artist, has been “mom” to several dogs, cats, and horses over the years.

iStock.com/Chris Manley

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