Quiet, subtle sounds can be perceived by a domestic cat as a threat, possibly the sign of a predator. It is instinctive to domestic cats to be alert to these sounds. They may be innocuous to us. We might not even hear them. My cat often picks up sounds well before me. Sometimes he will dash off to investigate despite me being oblivious, at least initially, to the presence of the sound.
It is not just loud sounds like fireworks which can stress cats. This thought came to me because of an excellent Facebook post by Nathan Winograd. It concerns dogs but the basic principles apply to cats and dogs. He lives with a dog called Oswald. Oswald hates the kitchen. They adopted him as a rescue dog and Nathan didn’t know why Oswald was so fearful of the kitchen until one day he noticed “the almost imperceptible sound of the low-battery ‘chirping’ of the smoke detector in a backroom no one uses”.
He changed the battery in the smoke alarm and the chirping stopped. He subsequently changed all the batteries in all the alarms. Oswald calmed down. I suspect that dogs are more sensitive to low level, innocuous sounds than cats but not by much. In Oswald’s case it had a severe impact on his life. Can’t the manufacturers make the low-battery sound more acceptable to dogs? Are they aware of the problem?
There are many comments to Nathan Winograd’s Facebook post, all confirming what he discovered. There is certainly a problem out there in suburbia with dogs being stressed by quiet sounds. I suspect that these sounds can add to anxiety in domestic cats unbeknown to their human caregiver.
Note: This is an embedded FB post. Sometimes they are deleted at source which stops them working on this site. If that has happened, I apologise but I have no control over it.
Winograd refers to a study: Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners’ Interpretations of Their Dogs’ Behaviors. Click this link to read it: https://bit.ly/30pRu6t .
The researchers focused on dogs’ responses to households sounds; just ordinary sounds in the home environment. They found that owners underestimated their dogs’ fearfulness. Most participating dog owners responded to their dogs’ fearfulness of households sounds with amusement! And welfare concerns were rarely expressed. They want dog owners to be more aware of this problem and to stop underestimating fearfulness in their dogs in response to household noises.
It’s about education. Education is all in improving animal welfare. The fearfulness in dogs and cats to common household sounds/noises is, in the words of these researchers: “adaptive behaviour that helps protect the individual from harm”. They bring their wild nature into the home. Sometimes people can forget that they are living with a wild animal inside the veneer of a placid domestic creature.
Sometimes the fear response designed to protect them can become abnormal when it is consistently triggered by non-threatening stimuli. Also, if the response is out of proportion to the sound, it has developed into a serious health issue.
I feel that humans have become inured to the cacophony of sounds that humankind makes. It’s all the machinery that humans rely upon. There is often a very high background noise level in suburbia and in cities. We don’t hear it. We shut the sound out but it would seem that they are ever present to our pets.
In respect of the study, they found that both irregular but normal household noises such as smoke detector low-battery warning chirps and regular sounds from microwaves and vacuum cleaners caused fear and anxiety both overt and subtle in dogs.
With respect to cats, certain sounds can induce seizures. I’m referring to the crinkling of kitchen foil for example. It sounds like a rattle snake. And my cat is fearful of plastic carrier bags been folded up and placed into a drawer. Dogs tend to respond in a more extreme way to high-frequency intermittent sounds such as smoke detector beeps.
Importantly, the researchers decided that there is a mismatch “between the owners’ perception of fearfulness in their dogs, and the amount of fear behaviour exhibited by their dogs”. People are underestimating the anxiety in their dogs or they show a lack of concern for it.
When the sound i.e. the stressor is commonplace to humans, pet owners can misinterpret or respond negatively when their companion animal shows signs of stress, fear and anxiety. This implies that sometimes dog owners criticise their dogs for their instinctive response.
And sometimes the signs of fear and anxiety in dogs can be subtle and therefore missed by their owners. Another valuable point they make is that if a dog is suffering from physical pain, they may have an increased sensitivity to noise. This does not surprise me as the same can be said about humans. Up to half of dogs may experience noise sensitivity and extreme reactions throughout their lives.
They ask for more work to be done on this both in terms of dogs’ reactions to households sounds and their owners’ responses.
The study is about dogs but in respect of sensitivity to sound dogs and cats are very similar. This is amply demonstrated in the reaction of dogs and cats to the sound of fireworks. Both are often terrified. Owners are fully cognizant of that but they need to be aware that commonplace, low-level noises can create a background anxiety which they may be missing.
PS. I have always promoted the idea of a calm home with routines and rhythms as the most suitable for the domestic cat. To which you should add the maximum amount of presence of their human caregiver provided they deliver good care. This is the ideal environment.
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