Desensitisation: teaching pets not to be afraid

By Kelly Armstrong, Registered Veterinary Nurse

Now is the perfect time to ‘spring’ into action and start to implement a desensitisation programme if you have a pet with a fear of loud noises such as fireworks.

Approximately 50 per cent of dogs and cats are likely to suffer from firework-related distress. This can develop at any stage in your pet’s life, so preventative help and support is vital. 

It’s not just fireworks which can cause a fear response in our pets. Thunderstorms, vacuums, machinery and construction noises, gun shots and smoke alarms can all cause anxiety too.

Symptoms we may see include uncontrolled elimination, hiding, excessive panting or salivation, chewing, vocalisation, trembling, pacing, dilated pupils, digging, trying to escape such as jumping out of windows and seeking out their owner.

It is recommended a desensitisation programme is implemented at least 6 months in advance of the event and to begin the therapy when your pet is in a relaxed and calm state.

Training puppies or kittens in their first year to associate loud noises with a positive stimulus is vital in minimising the risk of them developing a fear response later in life.

Desensitisation involves the introduction and gradual exposure of noise or feared stimulus in order to reduce the pet’s stress response. 

To be effective it needs to be controlled, at a low intensity, consistent and carried out in a positive manor. It is a process which should not be rushed and will be individual to each pet. 

Desensitising can allow our pets to cope far better with fearful noises, though some may still need a little help to keep calm.

Other ways in which you can help ease anxiety in your pet are to provide them with a covered hide or den to go in, ensure blinds and curtains are shut, have the radio/TV on to mask outside noise, food filled toys/puzzles for distraction, keep cats indoors and avoid walking dogs in the dark, access to the whole house so they can retreat to a place they feel safe if needed and you as the pet owner remaining calm and relaxed.

On the Dogs Trust website they have a free downloadable series of scary sound recordings which can be used during the therapy, and instructions on how to use them at home.

Our veterinary nursing team will be happy to give you some guidance on noise phobias and how to begin with a desensitisation programme.