Summertime is usually a very positive time for our pets. The weather is pleasant, walks are more frequent, and general outside playtime is more regular. Unfortunately, this is also the time of thunderstorms and increase fireworks use, especially around July 4th. The loud noises associated with these events can cause fear and anxiety in some pets. A new behavioral study out of the University of Helsinki suggests that sensitivity to noise, especially fireworks, is the most common form of anxiety in pet dogs. In this study, 72.5% of all dogs showed some type of anxiety, whereas, 32% displayed a form of noise sensitivity1.
People who own pets with noise sensitivity usually recognize the classic display of anxiety behaviors such as trembling, panting, drooling, pacing, vocalizing, hiding, and trying to escape. Often, dogs are confused about the source of the noise and therefore try to escape to the outside, or just the opposite, scratch at the door to come inside. Because some rooms are better at dampening sound, these dogs may run to the basement or hide under or behind furniture. There are some displays of anxiety that owners may not pick up on such as drinking more water5, which can lead to pets urinating or defecating inappropriately. A dog’s response to fearful stimuli is a normal protective mechanism. However, when that behavior is in response to something that may occur commonly in particular environments, like thunder, it can lead to excessive stress and reduced quality of life5.
Why is this such a common issue? Genetics may provide new insight into the source of this problem1,2,3,4. A 2019 study looking at German shepherd dogs, found a region of the genome associated with noise sensitivity that also contains the oxytocin receptor gene OXTR. This gene is often connected with positive social behavior and is something for which dogs have been bred. This artificial selection for sociability may have increased noise sensitivity in this breed2. A different study out of the same laboratory identified a possible locus on chromosome 113 that was associated with fear in Great Danes. Although the research is ongoing, several other candidate genes for fear and anxiety were also identified3.
Fear is a complex emotion that can arise from multiple sources. Criticism of these studies have focused on the way data was collected; most of which was survey based. These types of “citizen scientist” studies that rely on the average person to report on certain things relevant to what is being gathered are limited by the language used to ask and answer the questions and may not manage the complexities of a behavior like fear1.
So, what do you do with a pet that is crying, panting, drooling, and hiding under the bed? The first step is to avoid adding to the problem. Recognizing this as a fear response the pet cannot control should dictate a calm rational response from the owner5. During thunderstorms, for example, the noise is not the only stress inducing stimuli. Some dogs demonstrate nervous behavior prior to a storm because of the rapid temperature and pressure changes, and changes in the ambient light. Maintaining a consistent environment in the home would be beneficial5 to try to remove as much negative stimuli as possible from the situation. You may need to develop a “safe” room where the noise is minimal. Crate training can also be very beneficial if done correctly and consistently from the time the dog was brought into the home5. However, crating your dog if they have never experienced this before, can exacerbate an already stressed animal.
If your pet is attention seeking during these episodes and seeks to be held, sometimes a comfort wrap like some commercially available products may be beneficial5. Pheromone diffusers or sprays that mimic calming stimuli may also reduce stress. Some pets demonstrate the most extreme displays of noise sensitivity and are in danger of hurting themselves or their owners. These pets may require a prescription for anxiety reducing medication from a veterinarian. Most of these will work better if given prior to the storm or firework display as it is easier to prevent the behavior than react to an already stressed animal.
This is the time of year to allow your pet the freedom and benefits from the warmer months, but also consider many dogs may have significant anxiety and noise sensitivity. Although genetics is providing more information about the origin of these anxieties, fear is a complex emotion where much is still left to learn. Recognizing the fear response in your pets and taking pro-active steps to prevent or minimize stress levels will improve theirs, and subsequently your, quality of life.
- Salonen M, Sulkama S, Mikkola S, Puurunen J, Hakanen E, Tiira K, Araujo C, Lohi H. Prevalence, comorbidity, and breed differences in canine anxiety in 13,700 Finnish pet dogs. Scientific Reports. 2020; 10:2962.
- Sarviaho R, Hakosalo O, Tiira K, Sulkama S, Niskanen J, Hytonen M, Sillanpaa M, Lohi H. A novel genomic region on chromosome 11 associated with fearfulness in dogs.Translational Psychiatry. 2020; 10:169. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-020-0849-z
- Sarviaho R, Hakosalo O, Tiira K, Sulkama S, Salmela E, Hytonen M, Sillanpaa M, Lohi H. Two novel genoc regions associated with fearfulness in dogs overlap human neuropsychiatric loci. Translational Psychiatry 2019; 9:18. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-018-0361-x
- Zapata I, Serpell J, Alvarez C. Genetic mapping of canine fear and aggression. BMC Genomics. 2016; 17:572. DOI 10.1186/s12864-016-2936-3
- Brister, Jaqueline. “Thunderstorm Phobia in dogs.” Veterinary Partners, Veterinary Information Network, 17/06/2019, URL: https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/doc/?id=9150900&pid=19239