Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
With the Fourth of July and frequent thunderstorms, summer can be tough for pets that are afraid of loud noises. Medication and behavior therapy can help, especially when treatment begins early.
Noise phobia is common in dogs. In some behavior studies, up to half of dogs show fear responses to loud noises. Some dogs are afraid of only one type of sound; others are fearful of several. Fireworks, thunder, and gunshots are common triggers. Vacuum cleaners, construction noise, sirens, and other sounds can also set off fear reactions. Dogs with noise phobia may also have other anxiety disorders like separation anxiety.
Some behavior specialists classify storm phobia separately from noise phobia because affected dogs may be sensitive to environmental factors (like changes in barometric pressure) in addition to noise. Storm-phobic dogs often start acting anxious long before the storm arrives.
Noise phobia gets worse with time if not treated. Owners sometimes don't seek treatment until a dog's symptoms become severe, but phobias are usually easier to manage while the symptoms are still mild.
Signs of noise phobia
Being startled by a sudden loud noise is normal. Dogs with noise phobia develop irrational, ongoing fear responses to noise triggers. They can hurt themselves and damage property. Panicking pets may also hide or freeze, which is less obvious than breaking through a window but is still a sign of fear. Pets with noise phobia can have various reactions:
Most behavior specialists suggest treating phobias with environmental modification and behavior therapy, usually combined with medication. However, treatment is tailored to each pet's needs. Before starting treatment, your pet may need diagnostic tests to rule out medical problems that can contribute to anxiety.
Environmental modification and behavior therapy
Pets should have a safe place to escape the noise. This can be a windowless interior room, a closet, a bathroom, a crate (perhaps with a sound-dampening cover), or any other area you've noticed your pet seeking during loud noises. Providing music or white noise in the safe place helps some pets.
If your dog does not have a preferred location, you can create one--but do not force a dog to go to a particular area (like a crate) if it increases his anxiety. Training a dog to settle in the safe zone on command can become a relaxation technique he can use during noise events.
Counter-conditioning can decrease fear and provide a distraction. For example, giving a treat-filled toy during thunderstorms can help a dog learn to associate the noise with something positive.
Desensitization begins with playing a recording of the problem sound at a very low volume for a very short time (at a level too low to provoke anxiety). The volume is gradually increased until the dog is able to listen without fear. This can take weeks or months. It is less likely to work for dogs with storm phobia.
Fast-acting antianxiety medications are used as needed for individual noise events, such as Fourth of July fireworks. Most work best if given at least 30 minutes before the noise begins, although some can reduce anxiety in dogs who are already frightened. Examples are alprazolam, trazodone, and a form of dexmedetomidine placed inside the cheek.
Long-term daily medications (such as fluoxetine) can help dogs who have anxieties in addition to noise phobia. They may also reduce overall anxiety in dogs with storm phobia. These drugs can be used in combination with fast-acting medications.
Antianxiety wraps put gentle pressure on the body. Some owners say these products help calm their dogs; others see little difference. A dog pheromone is available as a collar, spray, or diffuser. A recent study showed that the pheromone decreased signs of noise phobia, although other reports have been inconclusive.
What you can do
June 27, 2017
Photo by Robert Larsson
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM