Just as in humans, all cats have some degree of normal fear when they hear loud, sudden, or strange noises. It's a survival instinct. Some noises that can understandably startle a cat include a door slamming, someone dropping something, road construction outside, and thunder.
Some cats, however, are especially sensitive to noises or display exaggerated responses to certain sounds. A cat who's shy around strangers, for example, might become especially anxious when the doorbell rings or someone knocks. Fortunately, there are effective methods to help a cat who's afraid of certain noises.
How to help a cat who's sensitive to noises
First, you’ll need to set up your environment for success. Ensure that your cat has several places that they 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 the cat for behavior modification exercises first 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 can help to ask guests to call you as they approach your home, so they don't 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 can 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 this 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 might 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 might encourage your cat to stay nearby (rather than running to a back room) and emerge quicker (rather than falling asleep in the 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.
Using behavior modification to make a cat less fearful
One of the most effective ways to help cats feel less afraid of noises is to use the behavior modification techniques called desensitization and counterconditioning. 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 the cat 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 might also need the help of a friend in certain cases (e.g., have the friend turn on the vacuum for you while you're with your cat).
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 feline behavior modification steps to follow:
- Decide how you will decrease the sound volume. 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.
- Recording: Sounds can be recorded or audio clips can be played from the internet.
- 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 they're afraid of, and the distance from the sound source. For example, the starting volume might 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) can 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 the cat 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 the cat remains calm and doesn’t seem anxious (that is, below their threshold), give them an extra-special treat (e.g., a dab of canned food), a round of play, or some petting. The sound must come before 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 unmuffling 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 the cat 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 the sound farther away or decrease the volume until the cat is no longer fearful. Start the next session at this “safe” distance or volume, and continue pairing an 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 can take a while for your cat to overcome this fear, so progress might be slow. Just remember that, overall, you are helping to improve your cat’s quality of life. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication can help to facilitate behavior modification.
If you have questions about desensitization and counterconditioning 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.