A phobia is an intense, extreme, and exaggerated response to a stimulus, representing a powerful, overwhelming fear of something that may actually pose little or no danger. In humans, phobias can be associated with various things or situations, including claustrophobia (fear of confinement), agoraphobia (fear of new or unfamiliar places), acrophobia (fear of heights), and zoophobia (fear of certain animals, such as snakes and spiders).
Dogs, too, may exhibit hypersensitivity to diverse stimuli. They might react to thunder, fireworks, sirens, lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners, gunshots, slammed doors, loud vehicles, motorcycles, or even raised voices. Noise and storm phobias can affect any breed and either sex. One study suggested that some type of noise phobia might impact as many as 30% of dogs, with herding breeds appearing particularly sensitive to sound. There is evidence of a genetic basis for noise phobias, which can be heritable.
A fear of loud noises is normal and adaptive, but exaggerated, extreme reactions, such as hiding in a bathtub for hours after a clap of thunder, are not. Noise phobias can manifest at any age, with earlier onset suggesting a genetic basis and later onset more likely resulting from experience. One common myth about noise sensitivity is that “the dog will outgrow this.” Dogs do not “outgrow” excessive reactions to sound; in fact, these reactions generally worsen if left unmanaged.
Noise phobia in dogs is an anxiety disorder and may overlap with other conditions, such as separation anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. Evidence suggests that exposing puppies to loud noises before six months of age may have a protective effect. In most cases, the fear-inducing sound is loud and distinct, such as thunder or firecrackers. Affected dogs may display intense escape behavior, panting, shaking, salivating, urinating, defecating, or vomiting, and have dilated pupils. Reactions to fireworks and storms may be similar, but dogs might show intense fear responses to one or the other, not both.
Several treatments have been proposed for managing noise fears. Using a windowless room and distracting the dog from frightening sounds by playing a TV, radio, or white noise CD may help. Window shades to block visual stimuli from lightning or fireworks can also be beneficial. Distracting the dog with favorite treats or food-filled toys and providing companionship may help shift their focus away from the scary noises. Staying with the dog and offering favorite toys, chews, or treats can help calm them. Pressure wraps like Anxiety Wrap and Thundershirt that encircle the body have been shown to help soothe dogs during thunderstorms. If the fear response is extreme, medication may be required. For anxiety control, fluoxetine and clomipramine are often used. Sometimes, benzodiazepines such as diazepam can be administered 1–2 hours before the fear-evoking event. Trazodone given prior to the noise event may also help manage the phobia. Your veterinarian can help determine the right treatment protocol for your dog.
Summer is a wonderful time of year in Colorado to enjoy with our dogs, so ensure they get through the firework and storm season safely.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, a board-certified veterinarian at Alameda East Veterinary Hospital who’s perhaps best known for his 11 seasons on Animal Planet’s hit show Emergency Vets, lends his expertise and insight in his new quarterly column.