What dogs and cats are scared of - revealed!

13 November 2023 - 5 min read
Scary monster standing in front of fireworks

Listen - mostly having a pet in your life can be a real fairytale. But let’s admit it - there are times when it can be a real horror too.

We’re talking about those late night Google sessions that look a little like: “Why is my dog scared of everything”? “Why is my cat scared of loud noises?”

Because of this, we wanted to get to the bottom of what gives our pets the creeps. We went out and surveyed 1,000 British pet parents to find out the top 5 things that scare pets the most - and spoke to ManyPets’ resident veterinarian - Dr Kirsten Ronngren - to lift the lid on why pets find them scary, and how we can chill them out.

The number one scariest thing to pets? Well... the answer may surprise you.

5. Scary strangers (28%)

A spooky stranger stands looking towards the camera

28% of UK pet’s are apparently spooked by the presence of strangers. 

(Editor’s note: so are we, if we’re being honest - that’s why we work at a pet company)

According to Dr Kirsten, the vast majority of dogs that are fearful with new people are more likely to have lacked appropriate training, socialisation, and exposure to new experiences early on so knowing how to react or feel in these situations is challenging for them. 

“Overall health and breed predispositions can absolutely impact this as well,” she added.

“Have a place in the house where your pet can go when they feel threatened, especially at times when you plan to have company over, like at parties and get-togethers,” she recommends. “This area should include things like water, a bed, and toys/treats to facilitate a comfortable experience.”

 “Let your dog decide when to approach guests — never force or rush this. Reward your dog for a peaceful interaction every time so they come to associate meeting new people as a positive experience, or at the very least, one that doesn’t need to cause fear or stress.”

4. Terrifying thunder and lightning (45%)

A scary lightning monster stands in front of a sky of thunder and lightning

Coming in fourth place is the foe of many pets throughout history - nature’s own thunder and lightning.

“Dogs are more sensitive to loud noises than people because their hearing is more developed than ours - and they can’t conceptualise that the loud noise is not associated with a danger or threat like we can,” says Dr Kirsten. “Thunder in particular can seem threatening since they don’t know what it is or where it’s coming from.”

It’s important to note that some dogs have fears or phobias that can be more readily managed with desensitisation training or minor modifications to their routine. “But many dogs struggle with more complex anxieties,” she adds. “These can only be addressed when we dig into the problem and develop a long-term management plan, and may require the help of a professional.”

3. Vexing vacuum cleaners (47%)

An evil-looking hoover looks at the camera, it's suction nozzle pointed to the sky

We all love to keep our floors clean - but some pets are spooked when we whack out vacuum cleaner (47% of them, to be precise).

“Most dogs that I see with an aversion to the vacuum cleaner show signs of avoidance behaviour, not directed aggression,” starts Dr Kirsten. “They typically will hide in other rooms or cower on the outside of the room that is being vacuumed.” 

“For dogs that chase or bark, this is likely more so in relation to a fear aggressive response or for high strung breeds a herding or working response.” 

Regardless of what the base of the fear is, there are tools that can be used to improve this negative association with the vacuum cleaner over time, including desensitisation training.

“It’s not just about repeated exposure, it's about repeated positive exposure,” adds Dr Kirsten. “Starting slowly and working progressively over time is the most likely to be successful - for example, offering a treat or reward next to the vacuum cleaner when it’s off and not in motion every day for a week.” 

“Then you can try that while the vacuum is moving but not on. If your pet does not display fearful behaviour you can continue to work forward. Next I would try the vacuum on, but not moving. Again, this is slow and progressive - and in severe cases may require the help of a professional.”

2. Lamentable loud noises (58%)

A huge, intimidating speaker blares its loud noise in to the sky

Door bells, bangs, speakers blaring… according to our survey, 58% of British pets find them scary.

“Noise reactivity in dogs is partly hereditary - this sensitivity to loud noises is passed down, with various genes at play,” starts Dr Kirsten. Many dogs and cats dislike loud noises such as explosions, and this is often due to environmental factors and previous experiences which add to their fearfulness.”

So what can be done to help pets who struggle with those loud noises? “Create a safe and calm space for your pet. You can put down blankets and a crate (if available) so that they can make themselves a small den to feel as safe as possible. Remember to remain calm yourself, and only reward positive calm behaviours.”

1. Fireworks (61%)

A scary fireworks monster stands in the sky

The number one scariest thing for pets? Fireworks.

It’s something that lots of pet parents talk about with trepidation around seasonal peaks like Bonfire Night, Diwali and New Year’s.

“Fireworks are typically a noise phobia for pets, as they don’t understand where the sound is coming from and that it’s not a potential threat,” says Dr Kirsten.

“Similar to noise phobias, desensitisation training can be beneficial when it comes to fear of fireworks. This should ideally start LONG before the pet might be expected to encounter the noise that has caused the phobia.”

So that might mean that you start preparations for Bonfire Night in the last 2 weeks of October - so you and your pet are feeling a little calmer ahead of a fireworks-heavy evening.

“Creating a safe calm space for your pet, and only rewarding positive calm behaviours are a must. This may mean slowly overtime playing firework sounds in the background at home but carrying on as you would normally otherwise. Play a few rounds with their favourite toy or give them some tasks to do followed by a reward.”

Things that go bump in the night

Turns out, pets are likely to be spooked just as much as humans. Our research has revealed that a whopping 96% of pet owners claimed that they know when their pet is scared - and what’s more, nearly half (46%) of pet owners believe their pets can sense supernatural occurrences.

7 in 10 pet owners (69%) reported that their instinct is to give their pet lots of attention when they’re noticeably on edge - with 6 in 10 (59%) giving them a cuddle in an attempt to calm them down. However, as has been shown by chatting to Dr Kirsten, this approach could in fact make a pet’s anxieties worse.

Lewis Martins
Communities marketer

Lewis has worked in pet health since 2017. Before joining ManyPets in 2021, he led content production at VetForum and PetsApp. Lewis has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest vet groups and suppliers to write educational articles for vets and pet parents. His Instagram feed is 60% dogs, 40% cats.