Noise Aversion in Dogs

Summary

Noise aversion describes a true phobia (mental disorder) triggered by a particular noise or loud noises in general. It affects approximately 30% of dogs. In extreme cases the fear may also be triggered by specific places, objects, people, or other stimuli related to the noises and may last well beyond the end of exposure to the stimulation. The most common noise averse phobia triggers in dogs are storms, fireworks, and gunshots. The cause of noise aversion is still unknown, although there are factors that influence the likelihood of a phobia developing in dogs.   There are many possible behavioral responses to stimuli  that indicate noise aversion. These range from whining, pacing, and barking to aggression, destroying furniture, and bolting through windows or doors. In severe cases symptoms can occur for hours after the stimulus is over.  These symptoms are involuntary and more than the reaction of a dog who “doesn’t like” the triggering sound.  While not a life threatening condition, high levels of panic may result in self-harm, property damage, or harm to others. Noise phobias greatly affect the quality of life for both dogs and pet parents. Treatment is necessary for the well being of everyone in the household.

There are many different methods to treat phobias and the accompanying behavior. Treatment plans differ for each case, although some common elements are avoiding the stimulus as much as possible, and creating a safe space to hide. Other possibilities include medication, desensitization, counterconditioning, masking the stimulus, or using items to lessen anxiety.

Risk Factors

Noise aversion is common in dogs, affecting approximately 1 in 3 dogs, and can be extremely distressing. 

Noise aversion can be managed and lessened, but rarely goes away completely.

Possible Causes

The exact cause of noise aversion is not known. Many factors may contribute to a dog developing noise aversion, including:

• Genetic predisposition

• A traumatic experience associated with a specific noise

• Lack of early socialization or exposure to stimuli

• Vulnerability due to underlying illness

• Changing health and brain chemistry in an aging or elderly dog, causing anxieties to develop

Main Symptoms

Dogs indicate their fear and anxiety when suffering from phobias like noise aversion  in many different ways. Some of the most common symptoms are:

• Panting • Hiding or trying to run away • Yawning and lip-licking • Trembling • Whining • Barking

• Attention seeking (vocalizing, pawing, nuzzling, and climbing on people) • Drooling • Pacing and circling

• Unusual house soiling • Unexplained aggression

• Destruction of property, especially cages, crates, doors, and windows

Detailed Characterization

As noise aversion is common, there is a wide range of intensity reported. In mild cases dogs display a light fear response, for example trembling or whining and recover as soon as the trigger stops. In severe cases intense panic incites dramatic symptoms lasting for days after the trigger stops. Severely affected dogs are not able to live a normal life without treatment.

Testing and Diagnosis

There is no specific diagnostic test for noise aversion. Diagnosis is usually based on the presence of typical symptoms. A thorough physical examination and basic blood tests are indicated prior to starting treatment for noise aversion in order to rule out other underlying medical problems. These tests will also indicate if there are any limitations on therapeutic options for the individual dog.

Steps to Recovery

Once present in a dog, noise aversion is rarely cured completely. The goal of treatment is to decrease the symptoms and improve the quality of life for the dog.

A combination of environmental management, behavior modification, and medication may be recommended to treat noise aversion. In severe cases, all three approaches are the most effective.

Environmental management is the process of reducing the dog’s exposure to the trigger. Whenever possible,  triggering noises are simply avoided. When avoidance isn’t possible, the use of other sounds (music, white noise, etc.) to drown out the sound of the stimulus is often helpful. Some dogs successfully wear ear muffs to reduce exposure to triggering noises. Some noise triggers have associated visual cues, so avoiding or masking those is also recommended, where applicable. 

Another aspect of environmental management includes establishing a safe space for the dog to hide during an episode. The safe space can be any number of places, including a crate, bathroom, or closet with no outdoor windows. Swaddling a dog in a calming wrap may also help him cope with his fear. 

Behavior modification utilizes two primary strategies: desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization aims to acclimate an animal to the stimulus. It is achieved by repeatedly exposing the dog to the stimulus at low volume, raising the volume slowly until they can experience the stimulus at full volume without fear. Counterconditioning is changing the emotions associated with the noise, repeatedly using positive experiences or emotions when the noise is occurring to rewrite the automatic response.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are best when used together. It is best to consult a vet and certified behaviorist before attempting to use behavior modification to treat noise aversion in a dog. This will help ensure the therapeutic experience does not increase the dog’s anxiety.

Medication for noise aversion falls into two categories:  short-acting medications that are given when exposure to the noise trigger is expected, and long-term medications used in an effort to decrease overall anxiety.  Short-acting medications are most effective when administered before an expected event to diminish fear or anxiety. Dexmedetomidine (brand name Sileo) is one example of a short-acting medication. As the first pharmaceutical noise aversion treatment approved by the FDA, it comes in the form of a gel applied along the gums.

Long-acting medications are used in some dogs with noise aversion to try to decrease overall anxiety levels. These are typically given orally every day, and may be supplemented with as-needed use of short-acting medications.  Behavioral medicine is a rapidly developing veterinary specialty, and board-certified veterinary behaviorists can guide pet parents through the process of determining the best pharmaceutical plan for each individual dog.

Prevention

Noise aversion is not contagious, but an anxious dog may lead to increased anxiety in other dogs.

Is Noise Aversion Common in Dogs?

Yes, noise aversion affects approximately 1 in 3 dogs.

Typical Treatment

Noise aversion is usually treated with a combination of anti anxiety medication, behavior modification, and environmental management.

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