Why is my cat scared of noises?
Just as in humans, all cats have some degree of normal fear when they hear loud, sudden or strange noises. It’s part of our survival instinct. Some cats, however, are especially sensitive to noise or display exaggerated responses to certain sounds. Some sounds, such as the doorbell ringing or someone knocking, signal that other frightening events (e.g., visitors arriving) are about to occur. Other noises are loud, sudden and unexpected (e.g., a door slamming, someone dropping something, road construction outside, thunder).
How can I help my cat be more comfortable around ‘scary’ noises?
One way is to use the behavior modification techniques called desensitization and counter-conditioning.
Before you start the exercises, you’ll need to set up your environment for success. Ensure that your cat has several places that he can rely on to retreat from threatening sounds or events. Common safe places include on top of shelves or cat trees, behind or under furniture, and in an open cat carrier or a closet. Your fearful cat should feel calm and relaxed in the safe area. You can help make these spaces extra comforting by providing treats, small toys, water and blankets with familiar smells. Depending on the noise that your cat fears, you’ll want to prepare him for the exercises by doing the following management items for a period of time:
- Knocking or doorbell ringing. A few minutes before guests arrive, take your cat to the safe room. It may help to ask guests to call you as they approach your home so they do not have to ring the doorbell or knock.
- Vacuuming. Take your cat to the safe room before you begin vacuuming. Pinning a blanket over the door or at the base of the door may help further muffle the noise. If you have roommates or family members coming and going, put a sign on the door to let everyone know that the cat is in his room for a reason. If you vacuum often, alternate using a smaller hand vacuum or a manual carpet sweeper on some days or in certain locations.
- Phone ringing. If your phone offers a volume-adjustment feature, turn down the volume. Changing the ring tone may also help (e.g., changing from a ring to a buzz). Some phones have the option of lighting up instead of ringing, or alerting you via a personal signaling device.
- Sudden, loud or unexpected noises. These are inherently difficult to anticipate or avoid. However, providing alternative hiding places in various locations within your house may encourage your cat to stay nearby (rather than running to a back room) and emerge quicker (rather than falling asleep in his hiding place). Hiding places can be created by adding skirts around chairs or tables, cutting two holes in a large cardboard box and placing it in a secluded area, or screening off a room corner and creating a sheltered spot.
How do I use behavior modification to make my cat less fearful?
Over multiple sessions, you will get your cat used to the alarming noise by gradually increasing the volume of the sound or decreasing the distance between your cat and the sound source, until he is able to remain completely relaxed while the sound occurs at its typical volume. Initially, the fear-inducing sound will be muffled or played at a very low volume or at a great distance. Besides treats or toys, you may also need the help of a friend in certain cases. (You can use a cell phone to call your home phone, but you may need a friend to turn the vacuum on for you.)
If several different noises scare your cat, work with one sound at a time. Wait until your cat seems comfortable with one sound before working on another. Here are the steps to follow:
- Decide how you will decrease the volume of the sound. There are three ways that you can alter the volume:
Muffling: The sound source can be covered with a heavy blanket, pillow or towel. The source can be gradually uncovered as your cat becomes desensitized to the noise.
Distance: The distance between your cat and the sound source can be manipulated. For example, start the exercises with your cat in a different room than the phone or vacuum, with several closed doors between the offending noise and the cat. Slowly decrease the distance between your cat and the sound.
Tape-recording: Sounds can be recorded or audio clips can be downloaded from the Internet (sites like freesound.org).
- Find a starting volume (or distance). You’ll begin the exercises at the volume (or distance) at which your cat does not exhibit any sign of anxiety, arousal or aggression when the sound is played. Your cat should appear completely calm and feel safe when the sound is played at this level or distance. The actual starting volume depends on your cat’s temperament, the type of sound he’s afraid of and the distance from the sound source. For example, the starting volume may need to be lower if the sound you’re working on is the vacuum running rather than someone knocking on the door.
For very timid cats, just the sight of the sound source (e.g., the vacuum) may cause them to be fearful. In these cases, start the exercises in a place where your cat does not see the sound source. You can also work on getting your cat comfortable with the sight of the vacuum or other sound source by feeding him treats near the sound source without turning it on.
- Start behavior modification. Play the sound at the starting volume or distance and watch your cat’s behavior and body language very closely. As long as he remains calm and doesn’t seem anxious (that is, below his threshold), give him an extra-special treat (e.g., a dab of canned food), a round of play or some petting. The sound must predict the treat, not the other way around, so watch the order in which you’re presenting the two. Continue this activity for a few minutes. You can do several short sessions throughout the day.
- Increase the volume (or decrease the distance). After several sessions, you will notice your cat becoming more accustomed to hearing the sound played at a low volume. Increase the sound slightly by un-muffling the sound source a bit, moving the sound source closer to the cat, or raising the volume a little on the sound system. Again, monitor your cat closely for any signs of anxiety. If he remains calm, reward with a treat. Repeat the exercise a few times. Then, over many sessions, gradually and incrementally increase the volume of the sound or decrease the distance between your cat and the sound.
- Back up if your cat becomes anxious. If you notice your cat displaying signs of anxiety, move him farther away from the sound or decrease the volume until he is no longer fearful. Start the next session at this “safe” distance or volume and continue pairing his extra-special treat with the scary noise. When you start to decrease the distance or increase the volume, do so in smaller increments than you did before.
- Add in other elements. Once your cat is comfortable eating or playing while hearing the sound at a normal volume, you can repeat the exercises with different sounds or add in different situations (e.g., having a stranger at the door when the doorbell rings). Your cat’s ability to generalize and display calm behavior around a variety of sounds and situations will depend on how often you can repeat these exercises and add in different elements.
Try to keep in mind that it may take a while for your cat to overcome his fear, so progress may be slow. Just remember that, overall, you are helping to improve your cat’s quality of life. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may help to facilitate behavior modification. If you have questions about desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises or how to apply them to your cat’s situation, please consult with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a behavior consultant familiar with the techniques.