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If your dog or cat is terrified of loud bangs, it’s very difficult to see them suffering through the trauma of fireworks and thunderstorms. There are many things you can do to teach puppies and kittens how to tolerate loud noises, and the good news is, there is also something that can be done for older dogs and cats too. 

Puppies and Kittens 

The process of getting young animals used to environmental experiences without it causing them distress is called habituation. There’s a window period where this type of learning is most effective in young puppies and kittens, and while it can still be done in older dogs and cats, it usually takes a lot longer, without the same dramatic results.  

For most dogs, this window period is up to approximately 16 weeks. This time frame can vary though. For example, the window period for German Shepherds is up to 14 weeks, up to 12 weeks for Australian Cattle Dogs, and up to 20 weeks for Labradors. 

In kittens, this period is much shorter. Their window period is only up to 8 weeks!   

This means that once this window period is over, your pet will, in all likelihood, react poorly to anything new that he or she has not encountered before. When they then encounter something new, they will respond using what we call one of the “5F hazard avoidance strategies”.  Dogs and cats use 4 strategies when they are frightened: flight, fight, freeze or fidget. Birds and rats will use the fifth one: faint.  

It’s because of this short window period where you can teach your dogs and cats what life is all about, and how to cope with strange things like fireworks and thunderstorms, that behaviourists, trainers and vets put so much emphasis on attending a good puppy or kitten socialization class. 

It’s not just about teaching your dog to be ok with other dogs; it’s about teaching life skills and giving them the tools to cope with living in a human world. So, if you’re getting a kitten or puppy, make sure you socialize and habituate them to everything, before that window period is over.

How to teach your Puppy or Kitten to Cope with Loud Noises

Play loud music, slam doors, play thunder noises and firework sounds (YouTube is a great source here) at different volumes via your computer or tablet, and make sure that your pet learns to associate that sound with his favourite things. 
Play the sounds and hand feed treats every time there’s a loud bang. Or play his favourite game while the sounds are playing in the background. 

Fetch, tug and ‘find me’ are favourites for dogs, but you can also teach them to associate the loud noises with a much enjoyed activity, like a stuffed Kong, by only providing these fantastic toys when you’re playing the loud noises.  

For cats, hunting type games are usually firm favourites. These games work best when using teaser toys such as the Feather Teaser .  You can dart and drag this toy all over the house, which your cat and kitten will absolutely love!  

If you periodically expose your dog and cat to loud noises and always pair it with a pleasant outcome you’ll help to maintain their positive association with the experience so that when the real thing happens, they’ll cope better.

Preparing your adult dog or cat

The single most important part of helping your adult dog or cat cope with fireworks and thunderstorms is to provide them with a den or a safe space and teach them that this is their safe space BEFORE the stressful event happens. 

This means your dog and cat needs to learn (when they’re calm) that this space is where they are safe and happy.  

Image source: Notonthehighstreet.com

To do this, follow these guidelines:

  1. This space must be enclosed, preferably soundproof, and very comfortable. 

Your pet must want to spend time there.  Look at the places he/she is already using as everyday resting spaces and try to copy that.  It has to be an enclosed area though – going to ground when scared or finding a safe hiding place is instinctive for both dogs and cats. Think along the lines of a den – so covered, dark, smallish (so it’s a comfortable fit, but not too big) and with only one entrance. 

Cats like to be inside cupboards and cat igloos, or under beds/couches and duvets.  If your cat has a favourite spot, consider using Feliway spray in this area as that will make it feel even more secure and will have a calming effect on your cat’s emotional state. 

Dogs like places with the same ‘feel’– under desks, in hanging wardrobes, under beds or in a crate. For dogs, you can use Adaptil’s calming spray for dogs, or Earth Pet’s aromatherapy calming blend to cement the feeling of relaxation and safety. 

  1. This safe space MUST be available to your dog or cat 24/7, whether you are home or not. 

If your dog’s safe space is inside or under the bed, but you’re not home when a firework is set off or there’s a thunderstorm, he’s going to panic and will do his best to get to his safe space. So make sure that you either have a duplicate, conditioned (that he’s used to) safe space outside, or your pet has access indoors 24/7. 

It is a good idea to introduce a safe space outdoors anyway It needs to be in a secure corner, under cover, and preferably with an entrance facing a wall or the corner, so they can hide in it without having watch the scary lights flashing – cues that add to the panic. 

Make sure there’s a comfortable bed inside, and that it’s as soundproof as possible. Simply line the kennel or box with egg boxes inside, and don’t forget the roof.  Condition (teach) your dog and cat that this is a safe space too, by following the steps mentioned in point 4 below.  

Please note that there has to be one safe space per pet, per household. 

Start the conditioning process when your dog or cat is calm – during everyday life where he isn’t frightened. Make sure your pet has a microchip or a collar with your contact details on all the time, in case an unexpected situation arises and your pet bolts. 

  1. How to introduce your dog or cat to their safe space:

  • If the space is indoors, it must be away from doors and windows. Preferably somewhere in the middle of a room and next to something else that gives the feeling of sturdiness (couch, bed, etc.) or in a cupboard for cats.   
  • There must be one per pet, per household.  
  • Make sure your pet can get to it every single moment of every single night and day. 
  • When introducing a safe space for cats, consider using Earth Pet’s cat calming blend, or Feliway spray. For dogs, you can use Adaptil (DAP) as mentioned earlier. 
  • Feed your cat or dog all his meals in this safe space and encourage them to sleep there at night. 
  • For dogs, provide lots of blankets in the den as they like to burrow under things to feel safe. 
  • Whenever you see your dog or cat in their safe space, don’t disturb them. Hide treats in there for them to find, but when they are in their safe space, they are off-limits. This is particularly important for households with children. 
  • You can also condition your pet to associate a certain piece of music with an emotional state. Whenever you play with your dog or cat, put one specific piece of music on the CD player and play it (gradually increase the volume over a period of time).
  • Classical music is great, because it tends to be quite long in duration. If you play the same piece of music when good things are happening in your pet’s life, they will quickly learn that that piece of music makes them feel happy. You can then play that music whenever fireworks or storms are going on. 

What to do when there are fireworks or a thunderstorm.

  • An hour before the fireworks, feed your dog a large carbohydrate rich meal as that will help to make him feel sleepy and calm.  
  • Keep your cat and dog indoors well before sunset and put the ‘mood music’ on. You can also draw the curtains and play their favourite games with them well before the fireworks start. Play helps to combat panic and anxiety, so keep them amused and in a good mood. 
  • As soon as the fireworks start, lead your pet to her den or safe space and sit with her.  
  • IT IS OK TO COMFORT YOUR PET! For a long time, pet owners were told to ignore their pets when they were showing signs of fear because if you did that, you would be reinforcing the fearfulness. Thankfully there’s a lot of research that proves conclusively that this is not the case. In fact, ignoring your dog or cat when she’s terrified can actually make it worse! Try to keep yourself calm and to jolly them along as much as you can without hiding under the bed with them. Understand that your pet thinks it’s the end of the world, and give them comfort if they are afraid.
  • If you know your dog is terrified of the loud noises, consider using a Thundershirt provided he doesn’t find it too overwhelming! Get your pet used the Thundershirt while calm. 
  • If you don’t have a Thundershirt, you can put one of your t-shirts on your dog or cat or if you are familiar with TTouch, apply a body wrap. Google is a useful source here for how to correctly put thundershirts/anxiety shirts/body wraps on your pets. Often the feeling of being confined can help. But this doesn’t work for every dog or cat. If your pet freezes or cowers even more, the wrap may be too much, so rather take it off.
  • There are several remedies available to help pets through fireworks and storms. If you’re going to use something like Adaptil Calming Spray, Calm-eze, Rescue Remedy, Sentry or nurtureCALM collars (or any other medication) ALWAYS remember to check with your vet first, especially if your dog or cat is on any existing medication. Overdosing can kill your pet, and some medications cannot be mixed with others, even homeopathic remedies. Use any medication from your vet exactly as prescribed and don’t exceed the dosage under any circumstances. 
  • You can actually put earplugs in your pet’s ears, provided it’s the same kind used for babies and toddlers. Or you can make them yourself by using rolls of wrung out damp cotton wool. It’s very important to take care and to make sure that you don’t push them down too far into your pet’s ear canal. Make sure you remove them and throw them away carefully afterwards. Set a reminder on your cell phone so you don’t forget! You can also put headphones on your dog if your dog is comfortable with them.  

Finally, if your dog or cat needs professional help to overcome their fear of loud noises, please seek help sooner rather than later. The sooner this is addressed, the better the chances of success. For assistance, please feel free to email us on info@coapesa.com. 

Karin Pienaar
Animal behaviour guru, Karin Pienaar, has been working in the field of animal behaviour and behaviour therapy in South Africa since 1997. She completed her Diploma in Animal Behaviour in the UK, through the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) and is a qualified Practitioner member of the COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists & Trainers (CAPBT) in the UK and South Africa.
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