Pet Factsheets

Noise sensitivities in cats

If your cat is afraid of loud or sudden noises life can be miserable for both of you. Summer thunderstorms can become a major trauma and unless you live in a remote part of the country there is almost no way of avoiding fireworks. There are some simple tips that can help to make the whole experience more bearable for both of you, but to find a solution to the problem you will need to seek some expert help.

What is a noise sensitivity?

Noise sensitivity is the exaggerated reaction to noises, generally loud and sudden noises such as thunder, foreworks, gunshots, etc. Sensitivity can be shown in the form of anxiety, fear or a phobic response.

Fear can be difficult to gauge in animals and is based on observation of body postures and behavioural persistence. A fearful cat will show an increased heart rate, often pant and possibly urinate and defaecate inappropriately.

Fleeing or hiding are instinctive, and protective postures are adopted and a fearful cat may appeat to try to make himself as small as possible, cringing close to the ground with the ears flat against the head and tail tucked under the body. Defensive aggressive behaviour may also be exhibited, but whether an animal flights or flees depends on its genetic make up and also the perceived threat and environment.

Cats that are fearful of loud noises and unusual sounds can display a range of behaviours that vary from one individual to another. It is likely that the cat will display a fearful posture with the body hair erect and the ears flattened back. Some cats will quickly flee to a safe spot that may be behind or under a piece of furniture.

It is possible for some cats to display aggression when their owners try to coax them from under the bed or retrieve them from their hiding spot. There are times when the aggression is directed towards another cat in the household. 

Why does my cat appear anxious before the noise starts?

Noise phobia means that the fear has become so extreme that the response is the same everytime there is even the slightest hint of a problem, as in a panic attack, and may even occur in absence of the feared sound.

Aniety is the manifestation of fear signs in anticipation of the noise. Your cat may have learnt the events that predict the presence of the noise and react to these (eg changes in the barometric pressure in the case of an approaching thunderstorm). On the other hand, your cat may feel constantly anxious when there is no way to predict the feared sound (eg gunshots).

Why does my cat have a noise sensitivity?

Fear is a normal reaction in many situations. If your cat has been scared on one occasion, perhaps when caught outside during a thunderstorm, it can lose confidence in its immediate environment and become withdrawn and display behaviours akin to the human condition of agrophobia (fear of open spaces).

The reason why some cats are fearful of noises whilst others appear to be almost bomb proof usually relates to their early environment. A cat that has been reared in a noisy and stimulating environment (such as the home) up until the age of 7 weeks has been sufficiently exposed to a range of stimuli to make it less likely to develop fearful behaviours as an adult, particularly if they are homed into an equally challenging environment.

Cats that are reared in a quiet or secluded setting, such as a cattery, and not homed until the ages of 10 or 12 weeks of age are more likely to display fearful and nervous behaviours as an adult as they have not received sufficient exposure to a range of sounds. Phobias may be the result of just one exposure to a particularly intense stimulus or gradually build up as the result of continued exposure.

There are, of course, genetic factors that can predispose a cat to display fearful behaviours but these cats would display a generalized fear of all stimuli, not necessarily just sounds.

How should I handle the problem?

If your cat displays a fearful response to sounds, you must be aware that your responses can inadvertently worsen the behaviour of your pet. If the cat is aggressive when it is frightened and you try to punish the cat to prevent the aggression occurring in the future, the cat may become increasingly aggressive on subsequent occasions. At the other extreme, if you try to comfort and reassure the cat, then it will gain nothing long term as your actions may induce aggression from the cat as it tries to withdraw. As a general rule, it is better to allow the cat to withdraw to a small, dark place that appears safe and offer rewards in the form of food, interactions or play when the cat reappears so that they learn to overcome the fear more quickly in the future.

A cat that is feeling insecure within its home may respond more adversely to sounds so it is important that the cat's security is assured by providing raised platforms, little and often feeding as well as the use of an appeasing pheromone signal (such as Feliway©) that can ensure the familiarity of the home environment. Time should be spent identifying the sound that elicits the fear response and finding ways to distract the cat or teaching it to respond differently.

Are there any drugs that will help my cat?

For some cats with a severe phobia the only solution in the short term is a short course of calming medication form your vet. These drugs should be given before your pet becomes upset for maximum efficacy, therefore you must give them before the feared event starts. Give the medication even if you are not sure whether the noise will occur or not, as it is better for your pet to have taken the medication on a false alarm than for him to experiemce another traumatic event without medication. Always discuss medication issues with your vet and only use treatment under their guidance.

What can I do to help my cat?

Never punish your pet for their behaviour when they are afraid. They will only learn to associate the punishment with the noise and become even more disturbed. Try not to make a big fuss of your pet when they appear nervous. Act normally and praise them if you do the same, or try to be jolly and playful and reward your pet once he joins you.

Try to ignore the noises outside. Do not soothe or comfort your cat whilst it shows fear as this may encourage the behaviour. Act as you would do normally. If it is not possible for you to ignore your pet, you may try to distract your pet by playing a game.

Once the immediate problem is over, think about getting professional help for your pet. Your vet will be able to refer you to a specialist in animal behaviour who can help you with desensitisation therapy to re-train your pet not to be afraid.

What is desensitising and counter-conditioning therapy?

Desensitisation is the process of teaching your pet to be less sensitive to sudden loud noises. Counter-conditioning means swapping the fear response with a more positive feeling (eg associated with play or eating). The basic principle of desensitisation is to let your pet experience the noises in a situation where he does not feel afraid (initially at a volume so low that you cannot hear it yourself). Your cat is then rewarded for being relaxed and once they are used to this process the level of noise is gradually increased, but only to a level where they feel confident. If your cat is ever afraid of the noise then the level should be reduced until they feel safe again.

Conclusion

Having a sound sensitivity is no fun for your cat and can be very distressing for you. Many noise sensitivities get worse with time and they will not go away unless you do something about it. Feeling fearful can also put your pet at risk of developing other behaviour problems. Seek some help while it is fresh in your mind. In the first instance consult your veterinary surgeon who may refer you to an animal behaviourist for further advice.