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Woodridge Animal Hospital
(630) 985-3101
2009 W. 75th Street, Woodridge, IL  60517
Loud Noise Phobia
Thunderstorms and Fireworks

It's normal for animals to fear loud noises and instinctually try to get away from the source.  However, when the reaction and anxiety is excessive, it's unhealthy and considered a phobia.  The most common loud noise phobias are to thunderstorms and fireworks.  Unfortunately, loud noise phobias can escalate to include not only the loud noise itself, but environmental changes that the pet associates with the noise.  For example, a fear of thunder can become a fear of lightning, light rain showers, or even barometric pressure changes or certain times of the day.  While the fear may be an irrational one, the pet is genuinely terrified. 
Pets show signs of fear and anxiety in many ways and in different degrees of severity.  Some will be more subtle by panting, pacing, trembling, or drooling.  Others are overwhelmed by the fear and will whine, howl, urinate or defecate inappropriately, dig, or chew things.  Depending largely on our response to their behavior, these signs can improve or intensify over time.
If your pet shows signs of loud noise phobia, they need your help.  There are several levels of assistance that may be necessary for them to learn to cope with their fear.
Limiting Exposure:
If your pet fears loud noises, always allow them to have access to the area they feel safe.  We call this their "safe place".  They tend to try to find a place where the sound will be stifled.  Often this is a room without windows or skylights like the bathroom or under a bed or in a closet.  Never force them to be in an area they don't willingly want to go.  Closing curtains can help to minimize any visual associations they may have with the noise such as lightning.  It can also be helpful to use background noise such as a radio station, white noise, or the television to dull the sounds of thunder and fireworks.  Make sure the background noise is loud enough and constant to muffle the feared noise but not so loud as to scare the pet.  Commercially available Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) spray and aromatherapy scents such as lavendar and chamomile in your pet's "safe place" may also be helpful in decreasing anxiety.
A personal example:  Our golden retriever has been fearful of fireworks for many years.  Our annual 4th of July celebration is an action movie weekend.  Once it starts to get dark, we pull the curtains closed, turn off the lights, light the lavendar scented candles, and put on a marathon of "Die Hard" movies.  We pull up the footrest on the recliner so that she can crawl under, be near us, and feel safe. 
Training and Desensitization:
It's human nature to try to comfort your pet when they're upset.  However, this will only make the anxious behavior worse.  Your reaction to your pet's anxiety is one of the most important factors in whether the behavior will worsen over time.  Your pet sees your attempts at calming and comforting as positive reinforcement for the anxious behavior.  They don't understand the specific words you are saying.  They understand the way it's being said and the petting they are receiving.  They know these are positive interactions, so they think acting anxiously is the way they should be acting when the loud noise is happening--just like if you were to praise them for sitting.  When your pet is acting fearful, it's okay to allow them to lay or press next to you.  However, don't talk to to or try to calm them with petting.  Any attention will only reward or reinforce their undesirable reactions to fear and anxiety.  It's difficult, but it's time for tough love.  
You can attempt to teach your pet the "relax" command.  Whenever they are relaxed, (i.e. not panting, muscles relaxed, lying still, etc) reward the behavior with praise or petting.  It may be helpful to do this training in their "safe place" or on a pillow so that it can be moved if necessary.  Once they have learned the relax command, use an audio recording of a storm or fireworks to desensitize them to the noise.  Begin by playing the recording at a low level while your pet is relaxed.  If they remain calm, reward this behavior.  If not, try decreasing the volume and play a game as distraction.  If this is successful, reward the calm behavior.  Increase the volume gradually every few seessions while playing a game or other positive activity. 
Medication may be necessary for some pets to cope with thunderstorms and facilitate training and desensitization.  There are two main medications generally prescribed for this condition.  One is a tranquilizer and the other is an anti-anxiety medication.  We can talk to you further about what is best for your pet's situation.