by Diana Bocco
Do you have a dog who jumps at the sound of thunder or starts shaking every time you turn the vacuum on or there are fireworks in the distance? He might be suffering from noise phobia.
A poorly understood condition, noise phobia can actually develop in dogs of all ages, although dogs over a year of age are more likely to suffer from it, according to Kristen Collins, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and the director of the newly opened ASPCA's rehab center, which specializes in treating fearful and undersocialized dogs.
“Some dogs simply seem more sensitive and susceptible to developing a fear of noises, and this susceptibility may indicate a genetic predisposition toward the problem,” Collins explains.
Other dogs learn to fear certain sounds. “A dog who isn't initially afraid of a sound can become fearful when an unpleasant event is linked with that noise,” Collins adds.
What Noise Phobia Really Is (And Isn't)
Although they might all sound the same, fear, anxiety, and phobia are actually quite different.
“Fear is a physiologic, emotional, and behavioral response to animate or inanimate things that pose a threat of harm,” explains Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, and clinical instructor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, where she's part of the Animal Behavior Clinic. Fear is a normal reaction because it enables animals to respond to situations that could be potentially dangerous.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is what Borns-Weil defines as a persistent fear or apprehension of something that is not present or imminent. And finally, there are phobias: extreme, persistent fears of a stimulus, such as a thunderstorm, that is entirely out of proportion to the level of threat it poses.
“Noise phobia is an extreme, persistent fear of auditory stimuli that is out of proportion to the real danger, if any, associated with the noise,” says Borns-Weil. “There is no survival advantage conferred on an animal that panics in response to things that are not truly threatening or dangerous.”
Symptoms and Behaviors Associated With Noise Phobias
The symptoms of noise phobia are usually extreme. A dog who's experiencing a phobia episode is panicking, so he'll pace, pant, tremble, and hypersalivate.
“Frightened dogs may cower, ears flat against their skulls, eyes wide, muscles tensed, and tails tucked,” explains Collins. “Some dogs become restless and move around anxiously with no apparent purpose, while others become immobile, shutting down and unable to move.”
Some fearful dogs cling to their owners, seeking comfort, while others prefer to hunker down on their own, away from people and preferably somewhere dark and quiet. “I knew one very friendly, loving dog who feared the sound of thunder and only seemed comforted by lying down on a dog bed, alone in a bathtub, until the sound stopped,” Collins says.
It's also not uncommon for dogs with noise phobia to engage in destructive behavior like chewing, digging, scratching, and tearing up objects in the home.
“At worst, noise phobias can trigger frantic attempts to escape,” says Collins. “Panicked dogs may scratch and dig frantically at doors or even jump out of windows.”
Next: What's Behind Noise Phobia?