Noise phobias to thunderstorms, fireworks or gunshots are quite a common complaint from pet owners to veterinary staff. Given the dogs sensitive hearing it is no surprise that very few dogs enjoy loud noises. Some owners are unaware that there are different measures that they can take to help their pet cope during this stressful and sometimes destructive state.
WHAT ARE NOISE PHOBIAS?
Noise phobias are characterised by the exhibition of non-specific signs when the dog is presented with the stimulus or is anticipating the stimulus. The dog’s anticipation of the stimulus is a key aspect of these phobias and emphasis should be placed on helping owners to recognise subtle signs showing a noise that concerns them.
WHAT CAUSES THEM?
The many factors can be grouped as:
: The dog may have inherited a tendency to be fearful
: The dog could have had a bad experience to the noise either because of the severity or the dog’s tendency to be fearful. Animals can learn to fear associated stimuli eg the rain before a thunderstorm.
: A stimulus in the external environment elicits the fear. It may be the aversive stimulus itself (eg thunderclap) or an associated stimulus (eg rain). Other environmental factors may be predisposing the dog to fear. Eg the owner’s absence causing separation anxiety, which could make thunderstorm phobia worse.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS?
The individual reactions exhibited by dogs to thunderstorms can be highly variable but may include salivation, panting, increased vigilance and scanning, increased activity ( eg pacing ) or decreased activity (eg freezing), trembling, hiding, urination, defecation, vomiting, destruction, vocalization, self trauma and escape behaviours.
In extreme cases dogs exhibit true panic; they are insensitive to pain and social stimuli and react immediately in an extreme manner at the first sign of any impending noise. In such cases, escape behaviours can be sufficiently severe that dogs break their teeth, rip out their claws or throw themselves out of windows, regardless of height.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP THE PET?
Treatment involves both pharmacological and behavioural intervention.
Options to help your pet during a thunderstorm;
- Avoid Exposure (if possible)
Avoiding a thunderstorm will help prevent the pet from becoming anxious and even more noise phobic. The more an animal is exposed to a storm the more stressed it will become, as each exposure strengthens the reaction. It also makes any behaviour modification harder to do.
- Stop inadvertently rewarding the behaviour
Owners may not be aware that they are rewarding the pet’s anxious response- they think they are reassuring the pet. When an owner reassures a pet that all is ok by patting it, hugging it or generally telling the dog that it is ‘Ok’ they do not realise that they are actually rewarding the dog’s anxious behaviour. The dog thinks that the owner is telling it that it is ‘Ok’ to be frightened and anxious of the thunder. Generally when owners reassure a dog that everything is ok the dogs’ anxiety and fear escalates and gets worse the next time it is exposed to the noise.
Owners need to calm the dog without trying to reassure it. Distraction with an invitation to play may help take the dogs mind off what is going on outside.
- Stop trying to punish the behaviour
Trying to punish a pet for being fearful of thunder is ineffective, counterproductive and inhumane. The dog is likely to become more fearful of the next thunderstorm, as it thinks that it will get punished. Punishment is likely to increase the pets’ emotional state. The pet thought it was bad enough just to have a storm but now to have the owner punishing it- makes things even scarier.
Medication can help the dog cope with its anxious state at the time that a storm is present. To be effective any fear-reducing medication needs to be working before the stimulus is first perceived.
Behaviour medication should be prescribed by a veterinarian.
Some animals that are noise phobic will try and hide away. Provide a small dark covered area (a cubby) buffered as much as possible from the stimulus. You can also mask the sound of the thunder/fireworks by playing moderately loud rhythmic music on a hi-fi system.
The dog could be trained to sleep or spend short periods in a crate in which it could not damage itself. Many dogs show much less fear in them, especially if they are covered with blankets in a quiet area. The blankets on the crate help to block out the noise and the light associated with a thunderstorm.
- Desensitisation to the stimulus via counter-conditioning
For those pets that are showing only mild symptoms of fear to loud noises, it may be possible to change their perception of the noise from one of fear to one of happiness or joy. This can be done by introducing activities that the animal likes such as games, treats and play during the exposure of the fearful stimulus. Whenever they hear the stimulating noise, a game begins, so soon they associate the noise with the onset of a pleasant experience.
You could give the dog a stuffed kong or chewtoy to help relieve his tension. However, do not be alarmed if he doesn’t seem interested
- Desensitisation to the stimulus using recordings.
There are a number of recordings of noises available on the market which intend to simulate the sound of thunder, as well as other percussive noises such as gunshots, sirens and fireworks. The idea is to slowly expose the animal to the noise it is fearful of at a low volume, without elicitating any fearful response. Once the animal is responding calmly to the recording the volume is the gradually turned up. At all times care must be taken not to increase the volume to the next step before the animal is ready for it.
- Teaching calm or passive behaviour on cue.
Owners need to able to recognise signs of canine body language, especially signs of calm/relaxed behaviour and the early signs of anxiety and stress. As the owner becomes more aware of these calm signs they can work towards teaching the dog to relax on cue. Massage is a method of teaching calm behaviour, as the dog begins to calm after massage the dog can be cued and then rewarded for calm behaviour. Teaching the dog to relax and be less anxious on a daily basis, should be a part of the regular treatment for any dog affected by noise phobias.
REFERAL TO A BEHAVIOUR SPECIALIST
In cases of severe noise phobia, especially in cases when the safety of the animal is compromised a referral to a qualified animal behaviourist is recommended.