Lowering the ‘Boom’: Reducing Pets’ Noise Sensitivities

When summer thunderstorms roll in, some pets dive for cover. If your dog or cat is among those terrified by storms or other sudden, loud noises, such as fireworks, there are steps you can take to help reduce your pet’s anxiety.

According to Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian with a special interest in animal behavior, the reason pets are scared of thunderstorms isn’t always clear. One study found that a traumatic experience linked to noise was the likely origin of noise sensitivity in only about a third of pets with these phobias. Other factors that may contribute to noise sensitivities include chronic stress, genetics, neurochemical imbalances, and a change in hearing.

Practicing at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Ballantyne offers behavior consultations to help pets with phobias and other behavioral issues.

She says it is perfectly normal for a pet to be scared by the loud noises and flashes the first time the pet experiences a thunderstorm or fireworks. A pet may react defensively to these high-decibel noises because they probably hurt the pet’s ears, they lack a regular pattern, and it’s difficult to figure out where they are coming from.

It isn’t normal, however, if the animal does not get used to storms, and each thunderstorm is as terrifying as the previous one. Unfortunately, thunderstorms are common, and these frequent stressors can reduce a pet’s quality of life. Addressing your pet’s fears is important for the sake of the pet—not to mention the household objects sometimes destroyed by frightened pets.

Dr. Ballantyne suggests several measures that may help noise-sensitive pets feel a little safer and less frightened during a thunderstorm.

“First, try to make a safe place where your pet can go,” she says. “An interior room with no windows is ideal because it is more sheltered from noise and the flashes of light. Avoid crating your pet unless the pet already feels that the crate is a safe place.”

When pets are already hiding, don’t force them out: that can scare and stress them more. Playing music or increasing the white noise in the house can decrease the perceived amount of noise from the storm.

Your behavior around your pet also plays an important role in managing the pet’s anxiety during a storm. You should avoid either comforting or punishing the pet, and you should stay calm to avoid increasing the pet’s anxiety.

If your dog isn’t too scared, you can try to play with him. Interactive toys, such as a Kong filled with food, can help as well if he is willing to eat.

A pheromone spray for dogs called DAP helps reduce anxiety in some dogs. It can be sprayed on a bandana and tied around the pet’s neck during a storm.

Dr. Ballantyne acknowledges that noise sensitivities can be hard for owners to manage. Sometimes you can do everything right and your pet is still scared of the storms.

“Don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for help,” advises Dr. Ballantyne. “If nothing else is working, your veterinarian can prescribe anti-anxiety medication to augment the behavior modification plan.”

Don’t forget that a pet that is scared of thunderstorms will likely have a similar reaction to fireworks. These pets should be given a safe place to hide during the celebration and should never be taken to watch fireworks.

If you have questions about pets’ noise sensitivities, please contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

Andrea Lin is an Information Specialist at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine.

Channel Your Pet’s Need to Chew and Scratch

Shredded tissues. Destroyed shoes. A gnawed coffee table. These are just a few of the things I have come home to after leaving my puppy unattended. Similarly many cat owners discover that their couch or curtains have been shredded by sharp claws. A hassle for you and a potential danger for your pet, chewing and scratching are behaviors that should be addressed.

Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, says that chewing for dogs and scratching for cats are behaviors that we should expect from our four-legged friends.

“These behaviors should not be discouraged but directed to appropriate objects,” she says. Starting when your pet is young, you need to supervise your pet so that you can direct him to chew or scratch the appropriate items. For puppies and adult dogs, you can do this by providing them with chewable toys. If you are not able to supervise your dog, Dr. Ballantyne recommends confining him to a crate or pen with chew toys to prevent the destruction of household items. The chew toys should be durable, to prevent your dog from biting pieces off that could be swallowed, leading to potential intestinal issues. Strong, rubber toys with depressions or cavities in which you can place food or treats can also help to encourage your dog to chew on those items specifically.

For kittens and cats, you should provide scratching posts in multiple locations to encourage scratching of those items rather than your furniture. Any given cat may differ on its scratching preferences, so Dr. Ballantyne advises that you try various set-ups to determine what your cat prefers. You can place a post vertically or horizontally and in several locations of the house. The key is that the material of the post be shreddable, because cats use their scratching as a means of visual communication.

“Cardboard scratching posts are inexpensive and typically well-liked,” Dr. Ballantyne recommends. “You can also attach toys to the post, or place catnip around the post, to encourage investigation and scratching.”

Many pet owners have trouble directing these behaviors to the appropriate outlets. Until your pet can be trusted on its own, confinement to a crate or small “pet-proofed” room can save you a lot in the way of destroyed objects. Dr. Ballantyne says that such confinement can prevent reinforcement of the inappropriate behavior, and will likely allow your pet more freedom as an adult.

When pets continue to chew or scratch inappropriate objects, you should consider what you are providing them with as an outlet and how you are presenting it. For example, if you give an old shoe to a dog to chew on, he will learn that chewing on shoes is okay and may also chew on your brand new pair. Only items that are specifically for chewing should be provided.

If your cat continues to scratch a piece of furniture despite access to scratching posts, you can also place the post directly in front of the location where the cat has been scratching. Then the cat will be more likely to scratch the post than the piece of furniture. If your cat seems to have an affinity for a particular material, you can cover a scratching post with a similar material to encourage the scratching in a more appropriate location.

You may also need to take a look at your pet’s personality overall. Some pets may be overly destructive for other reasons. If the destruction takes place primarily when you are away from the home, your pet may have separation anxiety. Puppies and kittens (as well as high-energy adult animals) can also be more likely to chew or scratch destructively if they don’t have appropriate outlets for their energy. Increasing the amount of exercise and mental stimulation your pet gets daily may also help in preventing such destructive behaviors.

In the long run, the effort to train your pet and to provide him with appropriate chewing, scratching, and energy outlets could save you a lot of heartache and money related to destroyed household items and emergency veterinary bills.

For further information on appropriate chewing and scratching, please contact your local veterinarian.

Julia Disney is an Information Specialist at University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine.