The black-and-tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was normally a calm dog. Her owners never noticed any unusual fear of loud noises. That all changed one year when they took her to a friend’s home for his annual Independence Day party. Everything was fine until the fireworks shows began. Although no one was setting off fireworks at the party, the house sat on top of a hill that overlooked the Los Angeles basin with a view of numerous fireworks displays for miles around. The dog began trembling fearfully and couldn’t stop.
This dog’s fear of fireworks is a common one among dogs. Every year, animal shelters take in large numbers of dogs who escaped from homes or yards during Fourth of July festivities.
Fireworks and thunder are the most common causes of noise phobias. Other loud or unexpected sounds that can spark fear, anxiety, and stress in dogs include gunshots, backfiring cars, or even normal household noises, such as the beep of a clothes dryer or the rustle of a trash bag. Sharp or echoing sounds may also serve as triggers. But anything unusual can initiate a dog’s fear. Board-certified veterinary behaviorist Terry Curtis at the University of Florida’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences recalls one client whose dog was afraid of the sound of the toilet paper roll.
Up to 20 percent of dogs of all ages and breeds suffer from noise phobias so severe that their owners seek professional help for them. When they hear fireworks or when a thunderstorm rolls in, they can go into full-blown panic mode. It’s not unusual for these dogs to jump through windows, run through glass doors, dig through carpets at doorways, or dig beneath gates to escape their yards.
Fear, anxiety, or stress related to noises or storms has a detrimental effect on a dog’s quality of life, putting him at risk of injury or worse if he panics and runs away. And the fear isn’t traumatic solely for the dog in question. It’s stressful as well to the owner, who feels helpless to calm his or her pet.
WHAT CAUSES NOISE AND THUNDERSTORM PHOBIAS?
Sensitivity to sound is instinctive to all dogs. In some, however, the reaction is extreme. Fears of loud or unexpected noises are triggered by what’s called the orienting response. It’s the brain’s mechanism for awareness. When dogs (or humans) hear certain sounds, the brain instantly processes the noise to determine if it signals danger. In a more perilous past, that’s what allowed them to stay alive. But now, in a world where most dogs have little to fear from predators or other dangers, oversensitivity to sound can overwhelm a dog and cause fear, anxiety, and stress.
This type of fear or phobia is suspected to result from alterations in levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. It’s possible that this affects the limbic system and other areas of the brain related to emotions.
Thunderstorm phobia is complex. It encompasses not only sound but also changes in barometric pressure and ozone levels, darkening skies, flashing light, the buildup of static electricity, and the presence of wind and rain, making it one of the most difficult noise phobias to manage. If your dog is fearful, anxious, or stressed during thunderstorms, ask your veterinarian for a treatment plan or a referral to a veterinary behaviorist who will work with you on a treatment plan.