New Years is just over two weeks away, and while the sound of champagne bottles popping almost never goes off in my home, fireworks booming nearby, and a frenzied vacuum making its way around the house before guests arrive both happen way more often throughout the year than I'd like.
For some animals, these noises instill fear that literally makes them feel as though the sky is falling. And it doesn't take a loud boom, sometimes it can be something as common as a microwave beep, or the popping of bubblewrap.
Thankfully, there are a lot of different tools, resources, and desensitization and counterconditioning techniques you can use with your dog or cat, to help them understand everything will be ok. Don't forget, the best plans are made early, and tested early.
Quick Links Mentioned in the Show
- Why you shouldn't use Acepromazine on its own for cats and dogs with fireworks or thunderstorm fears
- Now is definitely a good time to make sure your pet's microchip is registered and up-to-date
- Is it hard to give your dog or cat a pill? Don't worry, there are a few options to try
- How do you know when your cat is stressed? Learn the signs.
- If your cat is panting, it is likely under stress
- New kitten or cat? Here's a shopping list to help your new cat settle in more easily
- How about a puppy or dog? Shopping list to help your new dog settle in more easily
- Want to give your dog CBD? Here's what you need to know.
Fireworks, thunderstorms, sirens, and even the sound of bubblewrap, can cause fear and high anxiety in some dogs and cats. And while these noise aversions happen all year round, New Years can be an especially terrifying time for dogs and cats with these types of phobias.
There are medications, supplements, and things like that, that you can use day-of, or chronically, to help your pet, but one of the most important places to start, especially if you know that your dog or cat has a noise aversion, is using a behavior modification program that really focuses on desensitization and counterconditioning.
Basically desensitization is using noise levels low enough, whether that be in volume or frequency or intensity, so they are just below that animal's anxiety threshold, getting them used to that, and then gradually working their way up by slowly increasing the levels and getting them used to it so the noise no longer seems like a threat.
You should ideally be going at a slow enough pace that they can be desensitized at each interval so that they can tolerate a higher level, or frequency, or intensity.
The counterconditioning component is, again, for pets that already have a noise aversion.
Counterconditioning is basically taking the noise stimulus, whether it be fireworks or thunder or car traffic or babies crying, and instead of your pet associating it with something bad or fearful, your goal is to try and get them to associate it with something good, and typically that's food, or attention, or play.
With those two things combined, if you can get your pet to gradually tolerate higher levels, volumes, intensity, frequency, and things of that nature, and also get them associating those sounds with good things, with food, with play, with attention, you can really help correct and really help your pet with this stuff.
This isn't like an overnight success type thing. This takes time, so we want to build to it.
If you've got a puppy or a kitten, you can start them early, before some of these issues may develop. That being said, some breeds have a genetic predisposition for noise aversions, so some pets can kind of inherit those issues.
But for those that haven't inherited them and who aren't displaying anxieties at this point, getting them used to what's going to be happening in their world on a regular basis is already a really important part of their socialization. You're getting them used to the idea of desensitization. You're not really counterconditioning because they don't already have the bad associations, but just conditioning. Getting them used to noises early will minimize the likelihood of it becoming a problem in the future.
Depending on where you live, thunderstorms may be a regular part of your and your new pet's life. Thanks to the sound collection that is the Internet, you can start getting them used to those sounds even when the sky is clear and the birds are chirping.
Check out iCalmPet for some great desensitization audio for dogs and cats (there are even some options for humans). It's actually really cool because they have beautiful classical music and then in the background with progressively increasing intensity and volume, are firework noises. They have city noise desensitizing audio too. So they're hearing this calming classical music while being gently introduced to these other noises.
Or check out different sound libraries on YouTube and read instructions carefully before playing them in front of animals
(Remember to start very low and work your way up SLOWLY)
Whether that's listening to audio that was specifically made for desensitization training, playing other sounds from YouTube, or testing out some of the things you've got laying around the house, just make sure to do everything slowly, at your dog or cat's pace, not necessarily your own.
Think about all the dogs that are used for hunting dogs. These dogs really need to be desensitized to that noise to be useful in that line of work. And it's the same thing for thunder, for fireworks, crying babies, and everything else.
Some things you can do to help set up a "safe space" for your pet:
- First and foremost, start early with the desensitization and counterconditioning
- Look at where your dog or cat tends to run to when they're stressed and anxious about these types of noises
- Take their lead, you don't need to know why it's more comfortable for them (it could be that it's a grounded area away from the static electricity that comes with the thunderstorm, or it may have the best sound dampening effect)
- Set up the area with their bed, blanket, toys, water, and food. Anything that will make them feel more at home and comfortable
- Consider using a compression jacket like the ThunderShirt
- Using a white noise machine, calming music, or both of them at the same time
- Bring in food puzzles, and Kong toys to keep them entertained, or at least distracted, with something tasty
- Depending on the noise aversion (this would be less practical for thunderstorm aversions) look into Mutt Muffs. They go over a dog's ears and while they are not noise cancelling, they can help dampen the sound.
- Sound-proofing tiles may be something to try, depending on how bad it is
- Go old school line the walls using the foam, egg crate material. A lot of musicians use something similar and can really help dampen some of the noise as well.
Random aside, but perhaps something to enjoy with your animal in their "Safe Room":
Dr. J and his dog Wendy enjoy listening to the sound of a crackling yule log on Youtube, with calming music in the background.
Mia recommends the beautiful, soothing nature and travel videos on the Netflix Moving Art series.
If relaxing train rides are more your speed, check out Slow TV's Train Ride from Bergen to Oslo. It's over 7 hours long and surprisingly enjoyable to have on in the background.
Unfortunately, every cat and every dog is different. So treating their fears really needs to be done on a case by case basis. What works for some people's pets won't work for others. It's really figuring out what works best for your pets. And you may have multiple pets that suffer and respond to different tools, medication and supplements.
In the past we were told just to leave our our pets alone if they were showing their anxiety, thinking it would reinforce their behavior, but this is not the case anymore.
You can't reinforce that fear that they're feeling — they're feeling it. It's real. It's not necessarily logical but that's what fear and anxiety tend to be about. They're an overreaction.
So, by soothing them, by helping them, by snuggling them, by being there for them and letting them know that they're not alone, and their world is not ending, you're not going to reinforce the fear. More than likely, you will improve that situation because these anxieties, these noise aversions, can get worse with time and they can actually also lead to other anxieties. So it's not uncommon to have a dog that maybe starts with the noise aversion and then winds up with separation anxiety, or they have them concurrently or vice versa.
You want to do everything possible and practical to help your pet through this. And it's not a matter of getting over it. It's a matter of working through it and having as little distress as possible with each event so that you can hopefully minimize ,or slow down, or prevent the progression from worsening.
If your dog is licking their lips pacing, nudging under your arm and wanting your attention when the fireworks are going off, ideally go to a place where they're not going to hear it as much and they're comfortable and then just be there with them.
Don't grab them and put them in your arms, because that might cause them more distress. But if they come to you needing reassurance and come into your arms on their own, by all means do it. But also having things like white noise and darkness, food puzzles like stuffed Kong's for dogs.
Play can be a great distraction depending on what their motivation is. If they're really food motivated, just giving them treats. If it's play awesome. Grab a laser pointer for your cat, or a wand toy, anything like that. Just play with them. Anything take their mind off of it will help.
Don't have a laser pointer? If you're not worried about ruining your screen, you can put this video on for them to paw at.
Make sure that you don't put your dog outside in the yard as if they'll just get over it if they are exposed to it. Not only will they probably not get over it, it will likely cause even more damage. This is how animals go missing, escape their fences, run into the street and get hit by cars, crash through glass doors, or get mauled by coyotes. It's incredibly sad, but it happens. We hear stories of it all the time and it's heartbreaking.
Supplements for Anxiety
If you're interested in giving your dog or cat supplements for their anxiety, you can purchase most supplements over the counter, but it's best to talk to your veterinarian or behaviorist about which ones they recommend, to ensure they will work well with anything else your pet is taking, and that they'll get the proper dosage for their age and weight.
Two that work really well are Solliquin and Anxitane, those can help to decrease anxiety and there are some other ones that people's vets can help them work through because not everything is going to work the same for a particular pet. This is another reason why it is super important to start preparing for these events as early as possible. You need to be able to experiment to see what truly works for your pet.
Anxiety Medications for Pets
There are now two FDA licensed medications people can use for their dogs. At this point to help with noise aversions and so talking to your vet well in advance because a lot of these you've got to do trial doses to know what's going to be most effective for your pet.
There are medications that can work for cats as well. Every cat is going to be different amongst the cats but also cats are different than dogs, this is where your veterinarian really comes in because they know your pet. Any existing medical conditions, they might have, any other medications they're currently on that might have contra-indications where they may not play well together.
Never give your behavior modification drugs to your pets. If your neighbor has a dog that responded really well to a particular drug or supplement, don't just be like, "Hey, awesome, my dog's a dog also and therefore it will work on mine," it won't necessarily, and it could actually be quite problematic.
Even if you're given the medication to your animal last year, it's best to test it earlier just so that you can make sure that it's working as planned, because many of these are given with dose ranges, depending on the severity of your pet's noise aversion.
What typically happens is a medication, or combination of medications will be prescribed with a starting dosage to bring home and test against some noise triggers. Again, starting very slow and low, and gradually working your way up.
You see how your dog responds. If they're still really perking up and alert and anxious, then either that's not the right dose of the medication, or it's not the right medication. There's a degree of trial and error. So don't call in July for the 4th of July meds, plan ahead in early June so that you can really test these things.
And keep in mind that every year is different. Just because a particular medication, or combination of medications, or training aids or supplements worked for your pet last year, it doesn't necessarily mean the same combination is going to work this year. It's a good place to start. But again, trial dosing at first can be quite beneficial.
Do Not Use Acepromazine (ACE) on its Own
Acepromazine can be used as a component of a medication for noise aversions, particularly in dogs, but on its own, is like putting your pet in a chemical straight jacket for this particular type of fear. Back in the day, ACE is what veterinarians would prescribe because it seemed to work really well.
It's a tranquilizer in essence, so it knocks them out and makes it more difficult for them to move or show any underlying anxieties, but the problem is that it really does nothing to minimize those anxieties and fear. So just using Acepromazine on its own for fireworks or thunder aversions, you're making it so they can't really show you that they're fearful, but they're still experiencing that fear and that can actually make matters worse in subsequent years.
The science is there to show that it really is not a very good monotherapy. It can be used in conjunction with other medications, but you really need a true anti-anxiety medication, something to also help minimize that fear and anxiety.
If your veterinarian is only prescribing Acepromazine, it's not that they're not malicious, they're not stupid, they're not behind the times, there is a lot that must be kept current on in vet medicine. Just ask if there something else you can use on top of this, or if there is a better alternative.
Pheromones Can Also Be Helpful
Pheromones are basically chemical signals in very small concentrations that are used to communicate within the same species. Feliway for cats and Adaptil for dogs are the main pheromone products, both put by Siva.
The Adaptil pheromone is a chemical signal that momma dogs secrete when nursing her puppies. So as you might imagine, that's a really calming, reassuring scent that a puppy will pick up on.
And for cats Feliway is a feline facial pheromone. When your cat rubs their whiskers and their cheek up against the couch, or your face, that's them leaving their signal, which helps them realize they've been there before. They're literally marking you, but in a really good way.
So these pheromones have been recreated for use either in diffusers, or sprays, or collars. So for some pets it's sometimes all they need, depending on the situation. But sometimes in combination with other medications and tools, and in combination with counterconditioning and desensitization, they can really make a big difference.
Thanks again for reading and listening. Have a story to share with us? We'd love to hear from you!