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ALISON LAURIE-CHALMERS: Noise phobias can lead to problems – but you can help

By Alison Laurie-Chalmers

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Fireworks can be scary for pets.
Fireworks can be scary for pets.

It is estimated that more than 20 per cent of the UK’s pet dog population suffer from an intense fear of loud noises, this ranges from mild to severe.

Noise phobias in dogs are therefore a common problem and are difficult and frustrating to deal with.

Dogs can develop a phobia to any sound. Some common sounds that can cause distress include fireworks, vacuums, sirens and thunderstorms.

Surveys relay that over two-thirds of our pets are distressed by the noise of fireworks. With their ever-increasing popularity, and not just for Bonfire Night, but for many other celebratory events throughout the year, this can be a real problem and concern for owners and for their pets.

Noise phobias can develop for several reasons. It could be something as simple as a pet not being exposed to certain sounds during the critical, early socialisation and learning period from four to 14 weeks of age. Also, there is a known genetic component. Some dogs, just like people, are naturally timid, and fearful of loud noises.

Dogs can develop noise phobias over time. If left untreated, affected animals often become hyper-sensitive and then generalise their fear towards far lesser sounds. Soon these dogs can become reactive to any abrupt noise, such as a door or window being closed.

A dog’s hearing is much more sensitive than that of a human, and they are also able to hear a wider range of sounds, in both high and low-frequency levels. The fear of loud or unexpected noises is triggered by a heightened orienting response. When our pet dogs hear certain sounds, the brain instantly processes them to determine whether this sound might signal “danger”.

Noise phobias can manifest themselves in many ways. A mild case may involve panting, tremors, and vocalising: barking and whining. A severe case can involve chewing holes through walls and aggression. Other signs include urinating, defecating, hiding, pacing, digging, escaping, drooling, attention-seeking behaviours and dilated pupils. These behaviours rarely improve unaided.

It is important to remember that these dogs are extremely anxious, and they are not purposely trying to destroy things.

Frequent exposure to sounds, particularly from a young age can desensitise the dog to that and similar noises. However, it is not unusual for dogs to develop noise phobias in later life either due to a negative experience, or simply through lack of ongoing exposure.

Dogs are also likely to be tolerant of sounds from a predictable source for example from the TV. They are more accepting to this than to random loud sounds with no predictable source, such as fireworks.

Treatment for noise phobia centres around careful desensitisation and counter-conditioning which requires patience and understanding. It is also a gradual process and is likely to take some weeks or months.

Try not to react to the noise yourself, or overly comfort your dog.

A way of effectively desensitising a dog is to use one of the widely available noise and sounds CDs. Soft, soothing relaxing music played over the noise of fireworks can also assist.

Contact your vet practice team for good professional advice.

Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant at Crown Vets in Inverness.

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