Noise Sensitivity Signs and Solutions
Millions of dogs all over the world are terrified by the sound of fireworks. In fact, the town of Collecchio, Italy, recently introduced legislation requiring the use of silent fireworks to reduce the stress caused to pets.
But even if everyone in the world used silent fireworks, there are plenty of other loud noises that cause anxious, fearful, and phobic responses in dogs. In a study conducted in the United Kingdom and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2013, 49% of dog owners indicated that their dog responded fearfully to a loud noise, including thunder, gunshots, and cars backfiring. All too often dogs affected by this condition also suffer from other anxiety disorders, particularly separation anxiety.
Signs of a Problem
When should you be concerned? Your dog may have a problem if you repeatedly notice any of the following reactions to a loud noise:
- Trembling or shaking
- Following you closely/seeming clingy
- Panting or drooling
- Pacing or appearing restless
- Whining or barking
- Appearing hypervigilant (continuously looking around as if danger is nearby)
- Attempting to escape or chewing on furniture, walls, or crate
This list is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive; a dog that displays one of these signs in response to a sound does not necessarily have a noise aversion. However, if your dog shows one or several of these signs in response to a noise, please seek help from your veterinarian.
What Causes Aversion to Noises in Dogs?
No specific cause has been identified for this condition, but the noises that cause these reactions share common characteristics of being very loud, difficult to localize, lacking in pattern, and impulsive (that is, occurring in short bursts).
Dogs can inherit noise aversion or may develop it after a traumatic experience involving a loud noise. Dogs suffering from other fear or anxiety disorders may be more likely to be “sensitive” to noises. Noise phobias can affect dogs of any age, breed, gender, or neutering status. Results from an Internet survey published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association in 2001 indicated that herding breeds such as German shepherd dogs and border collies seem to be more susceptible to developing this condition.
What Can We Do to Help Our Dog?
The first step is to bring your dog to your veterinarian for an evaluation. Your veterinarian may take a detailed history, perform a complete physical and neurological examination, and take blood samples from your dog for testing to rule out underlying medical conditions.
There are also many steps you can take to control exposure to loud noises or reduce their intensity to help your pet feel more comfortable.
- Avoid triggers: Noise-averse dogs should not be brought to fireworks displays or forced outside during a storm in the hope that they’ll get used to these sounds. In fact, doing so will probably intensify their fears.
- Modify or remove triggers: You could encourage your dog to stay in a sound-insulated area during thunderstorms, or you could install acoustic tiles in his or her safe spot. Play competing noise from the TV/radio and use white noise to muffle the loud noises. Shut blinds, shutters, and curtains during a storm or firework event or encourage your pet to rest in a windowless room. Consider teaching your dog (in a positive way) to wear earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, such as Mutt Muffs (safeandsoundpets.com).
- Don’t use punishment: Don’t punish your dog physically or shout at her or him for reacting to a loud sound. This will only make your dog more anxious/reactive and may even cause your dog to react aggressively to you. Punishment may also reinforce for your dog that there was something to be worried about in the first place.
- Comfort the dog: Try to be home or have someone stay with your dog during a loud noise event. There is no evidence that proves comforting or ignoring your dog makes the situation worse or helps. It may help some dogs to hold them firmly and lean into them; only do this when your dog approaches you and you think he or she will benefit. Release your dog if he or she struggles. Long, firm massage strokes may also help.
- Safe haven: Create a safe haven for your dog with your dog’s blanket, cushion, and one or two familiar toys. Feed your dog there or leave tidbits there frequently for her or him to find. Let your dog get used to this space before the fireworks and storm season. It can be a place that your dog is already accustomed to. If you think your dog will want to escape to that place during a loud noise event, then try to get her or him to go and settle there before the events start. Ideally this would be an interior windowless room.
- Medication: Your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to aid treatment and minimize your dog’s suffering. The goal of using medication is to reduce the intensity of your dog’s fear and anxiety. These medications should be used in combination with a behavior modification plan outlined by your veterinarian. All medications should be prescribed by a veterinarian. Please never give your dog any medications without first consulting your veterinarian, as you may seriously harm your dog’s health.
Even though noise aversion presents a significant problem for many dogs and often gets worse without appropriate treatment, the good news is that many treatment options are available. While treatment will not cure your dog of noise aversion, it will help to improve her or his ability to cope and make storms and fireworks more manageable events in the future.
Treatment is most effective when employed at the first sign of a problem. If your dog reacts to thunder or fireworks, please consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist in complex cases.
—Dr. Kelly Ballantyne and Dr. Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy
About the Authors
Kelly Ballantyne is a veterinarian and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists who provides services through Veterinary Behavior at Illinois, a Chicago-based practice that is part of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy is a veterinarian and a diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine (subspecialty Behavioural Medicine of Companion Animals) who sees patients at the Veterinary Referral Centre de Wagenrenk, Wageningen, The Netherlands. See more at http://www.animalytics.nl.
Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W., & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145(1), 15-25.
McCobb, E. C., Brown, E. A., Damiani, K., & Dodman, N. H. (2001). Thunderstorm phobia in dogs: an internet survey of 69 cases. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 37(4), 319-324.