’Tis the season for dazzling explosions in celebration of life, liberty, and the purrrsuit of happiness. This means it’s also the season for cowering cats and dogs. If you’ve ever seen this trembling, hiding, whining, panting, drooling side of your pet, you know how heartbreaking it is not to be able to comfort them.
So why are cats and dogs scared of fireworks and other loud noises?
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that cats and dogs are scared of loud noises because they have superior hearing capabilities. It’s true that they hear higher frequencies than humans do (our sense of hearing ranges from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz, dogs hear up to 40 kilohertz, and cats hear up to 60 kilohertz). However, this is not necessarily why our pets cower at the first sign of familiar commotion.
The real reason that cats and dogs are scared of fireworks, storms, and other loud noises is psychological in nature. Some of our pets are simply more sensitive and susceptible to developing a fear of noises. Animal behaviorists have theorized that this susceptibility may indicate a genetic predisposition toward the problem.
Some pets (dogs in particular) go so far as to develop storm phobias or general noise phobias, defined as “an extreme, persistent fear of auditory stimuli that is out of proportion to the real danger, if any, associated with the noise.” The symptoms associated with these types of phobias can be extreme in turn. Panic can lead to destructive behavior like chewing, digging, scratching, and tearing up objects in the home.
Top 3 loud noises that scare our pets
Commercial fireworks can be extremely loud (up to an eardrum-rupturing 150-175 decibels at the point of explosion), but they will transmit a weaker sound to viewers on the ground. Consumer fireworks, which typically have a lower maximum decibel level, might actually sound louder because they’re exploding very close to ground level. This can be a real issue when your neighbor is celebrating with a barrage of noise that might as well be a war raging outside to your oblivious pet.
A clap of thunder in close proximity typically registers at about 120 decibels—that’s the equivalent of sitting in front of speakers at a rock concert. Storm phobia, however, is brought about by more than just the dramatic boom of thunder. It is a multisensory fear, including other aspects of the storm like flashes of lightning, heavy wind, rain battering the roof, and changes in air pressure.
The bane of your cat’s existence, the vacuum cleaner, can reach 70-90 decibels in intensity. This is a little quieter than a jackhammer or garbage truck, but still exceedingly alarming.
Fun fact: The lion, your cat’s distant relative, can roar to a level of 114 decibels, carrying over 8 kilometers.
Ways to help
Create a safe space
Make sure your dog or cat has at least one cozy bed to escape to, along with a nice warm blanket and favorite toy to snuggle with. Turn off other noise in the area, as leaving on a loud TV or radio will only exacerbate the commotion your pet is trying to avoid. You might even consider leaving out an open crate for your dog (but never lock him in the crate during the event).
Don’t coddle them
This might be the most difficult advice to take, but it’s necessary. If you try to comfort your pet during a panic, it will only reinforce their belief that something is very, very wrong. Instead, behave normally around them; go about your day, but stay nearby. It goes without saying, though, that you should never punish your pet for trying to get your attention because they’re scared.
Buy a ThunderShirt
A snug-fitting garment like a ThunderShirt (or jacket, wrap, coat, or vest) might be just what your anxious pet needs. These “pressure garments” are said to have a calming effect similar to swaddling a baby. They are made for both dogs and cats, and can be used as needed: during a triggering event like a storm, or while you’re away from a pet that suffers from separation anxiety.
Playing relaxing music or white noise in a small room can sometimes soothe a panicked dog or cat. Make sure to play the music as needed, not continuously, or your pet may become desensitized.
In the case of vacuuming, for instance, have one person take your dog on a walk while the other gets all the noisy cleaning done. Or, distract your cats by leading them to a room or area of the house that’s separated from where you will be vacuuming (catnip and treats should do the trick!) and closing the door to block out some of the noise.
When all else fails, talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication, which can be administered for short- or long-term relief. Do not attempt to give your dog or cat any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian.
It’s important to be patient with a cat or dog scared of fireworks and other loud noises. For other advice on caring for an anxious pet, check out how to prepare for your cat’s vet visit and making a disaster preparedness plan for your pets.