A heartbreakingly large number of pets suffer from terrible fear and anxiety from loud noises such as fireworks displays, thunderstorms, gunshots, motorbike engines, or even things like a car backfiring. According to one study1, over 67% of dogs suffer from at least one form of noise aversion.
And although these types of behaviors may seem trivial to some, they can cause serious medical and behavioral issues, and often result in many pets being surrendered to shelters, rescues, or even being euthanized.
If these types of behaviors go unmanaged or ignored, they may lead to or exacerbate other anxieties such as canine separation anxiety. If you have a dog with noise phobias, you should reach out to your veterinarian or board-certified veterinary behaviorist to discuss the next best steps for their treatment. Each pet is unique, and the solution for one may be different from a solution for another.
Recently, I sat down with Certified Dog Trainer Cathy Madson, to talk about noise anxiety, fear of fireworks, and what you can start doing ASAP to prepare for the 4th of July fireworks. Check out video of the event below:
For non-prescription medication ideas and tips on how to help your dog feel better about fireworks, check out "Getting Your Dog Ready for the 4th of July." For some dogs, however, prescription medications are beneficial. Don't wait to discuss with your veterinarian possible prescriptions that might help your dog — reach out to them at least one month prior to holidays such as the 4th of July, New Year's Eve, or before thunderstorm season.
Signs of Noise Aversion in Dogs
When a dog is suffering from a noise phobia their behaviors are often characterized by intense avoidance or other anxiety behaviors, such as:
- Pacing or restlessness
- Lip licking, panting, drooling
- Trembling or shaking
- Excessive alertness or hypervigilance
- Cowering or hiding
- Brow furrowed or ears back
- Freezing or immobility
- Owner seeking behavior or excessive clinginess
- Refusing to eat
- Vocalizing (whining, barking, or howling)
These symptoms are driven by the activation of their sympathetic nervous system, also known as their "fight or flight" system. This system goes into overdrive when a pet is frightened or feels as though they are under attack. Unfortunately, unlike people, a dog cannot differentiate a firework or car backfiring from an actual threat, which is why these types of behaviors in our pets can be confusing to us. We want to be able to explain to our pets what is happening and why they shouldn’t be scared. Unfortunately, it's just not that easy. Punishing a pet who is experiencing a noise phobia is only going to reinforce the fear — always avoid yelling at or other punishment when your dog is acting anxious.
When a dog with a noise phobia encounters events such as fireworks or other loud noises, they may experience similar feelings to those of a person who is having a panic attack. This often results in destructive or panic-like behaviors. They may try to escape through closed windows or doors or even hide in strange places. In their panic, they may chew, scratch, and destroy furniture, walls, doors, and windows. In extreme cases, a dog may even injure themselves in their effort to escape the perceived threat.
Seek Out Support and Treatment for Your Dog ASAP
Perhaps one of the most important aspects when it comes to management, behavior modification, and treatment of noise anxiety issues is to start early.
The sooner a treatment plan for noise phobia is started, the less likely it will progress to severe behavioral issues. Even the mildest of anxiety symptoms, such as whining or hiding during an event, justify immediate intervention, such as a discussion with your veterinarian ASAP before the next phobic event occurs.
Left untreated, noise phobias usually progress to severe levels, resulting in a very anxious, stressed, and often destructive dog or cat (through no fault of their own). And no pet owner wants their dog or cat to be suffering. The sooner you begin addressing the issue, the sooner your pet will be able to cope with these scary events.
Treatments for Dog Noise Aversion and Phobias
First, your veterinarian is going to obtain a detailed clinical history to try and determine what your pet is afraid of and how intensely they respond to that “trigger,” as well as perform a thorough physical exam and any diagnostics they feel are necessary, which may include blood work, urinalysis, etc. Once completed, your veterinarian will next decide what is the best first step for your pet and their specific noise phobia. While simply managing these conditions with sedatives or anti-anxiety medications was often the first-line treatment for many anxiety behaviors, more recently many veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists prefer other alternatives over chemical restraint as their first choice for noise phobias.
For all noise anxieties, you'll want to begin a desensitization and counter conditioning program with the help of a certified behavior consultant. They'll also be able to help you set up a safe space for your dog and plan out management for noise events in the meantime. You can learn more about behavior modification steps and management tips for noise aversion here.
Non-Prescription Treatment Options for Noise Phobias in Dogs:
Consider plugging in calming pheromone diffusers near your pet’s safe space or lightly spritzing their bedding with the spray version. The natural version of these pheromones is released by a lactating mother in order to comfort and reassure their young. There are products such as Adaptil for dogs or Feliwayfor cats that contain a synthetic copy of this appeasing pheromone in an attempt to recreate this reassurance and comfort effect.
Alternative medicines or dietary supplements are typically derived from food sources that may have physiological benefits. These products are often used in cases of anxiety disorders in pets to help control phobias prior to trying prescription medications.
Always check with your veterinarian first before starting or adding a behavior-modifying supplement to your pet's treatment protocol. Certain supplement or supplement and medication combinations can be dangerous for your pets.
Nutraceuticals include products such as Calm-Eze, Solliquin, Zylkene, Composure, and more. These contain natural biological products like L-tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to the well-known mood-stabilizing hormone serotonin. Tryptophan is what makes us feel so tired after eating a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Another common ingredient in these supplements is L-theanine, also an amino acid found primarily in green and black teas, as well as some mushrooms. It may help ease anxiety and stress in humans as well as pets. Many supplements also use natural biologically derived products such as B-vitamins.
Zylkene: This non-drowsy nutritional supplement helps promote a sense of calm for pets stressed over fireworks or thunderstorms.
Composure: This calming supplement from VetriScience promotes relaxed behavior during stressful events.
The Thundershirt applies gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety, fear, and over-excitement.
Considering using CBD to help your pet suffering from fireworks noise aversions? Be sure to check out our "What to Know if You Want to Give Your Dog CBD" article first. It's a bit of the wild west out there in the CBD market and our article will give you the information and insight you need to make the best decision for you and your pets.
Prescription Medications for Dogs Afraid of Fireworks, Thunder, or Other Loud Noises
Unfortunately, some dogs will need medication to help them overcome severe phobias. It might be while they are going through desensitization training, have recently been adopted from a shelter with an unknown history, or have experienced a particularly bad traumatic event. Either way, while we as their veterinary team, behavior team, and family all work together to help them overcome their phobia, prescription medication can be used to make bridging the gap a little easier.
Prescription medications for noise anxiety consist of two main classes of drugs. These two classes of medications can also be combined in some pets, if necessary.
- The first are drugs that are able to act immediately, and therefore can be used in the short term in the face of unexpected phobic events, such as thunderstorms.
- The second class of drugs have a cumulative effect, require daily administration to build up in your pet’s system over time, and are often used to control more generalized anxiety behaviors as well as phobic disorders.
Fast-acting and Short-term Medications
Trazodone is a serotonin antagonist reuptake inhibitor (SARI) antidepressant. It may be given with or without food. Trazodone takes effect quickly, typically within 1–2 hours of administration.
Sileo® (Dexmedetomidine oralmucosal gel)
Sileo is an alpha-2 adrenoceptor agonist. This gel is administered 30–60 minutes prior to the phobic event (or immediately if unexpected). Relief is often seen within minutes of administration.
Gabapentin is an anti-seizure and pain medication, also used in veterinary medicine for its excellent pain-relieving and sedative properties. It may be given with or without food and takes effect quickly, typically within 1–2 hours of administration.
Diazepam is a benzodiazepine anticonvulsant and tranquilizer also used as a muscle relaxant, anti-anxiety medication, appetite stimulant, and anti-seizure medication. It may be given with or without food. It takes effect quickly, typically within 1–2 hours of administration.
Fluoxetine is an SSRI antidepressant used to treat a variety of behavioral disorders in dogs and cats. It may be given with or without food. This medication can take up to a few weeks before full effects are noted and it should NOT be stopped abruptly.
Alprazolam is a sedative/tranquilizer used as an adjunctive therapy to treat anxiety or panic. Give this medication 30–60 minutes prior to the triggering event, with or without food. This medication will take effect quickly, in about 1 to 2 hours, and improvement in clinical signs should follow. This medication can be used long or short term for both situational or generalized anxiety disorders.
WARNING: DO NOT administer ANY human prescription or over-the-counter medications to your pets. Several human prescription medications can be extrapolated for their use in veterinary medicine. However, their dose, timing, and how they are administered can vary widely from that of human-use. It is VERY important you do NOT administer ANY human medications to your pet without consulting with your veterinarian first.
Why You Should NOT Use Acepromazine ("Ace") for Pets with Noise Anxiety
Acepromazine is a medication that has previously been used for many phobias in pets. However, it is slowly going out of favor, and we felt we needed to mention why, as many people still want to use it. Acepromazine, often called “Ace” seems to have the desired effect of sedation or lack of a reaction or response to the phobia. However, all is not quite what it seems.
What It's Like for Your Noise-Phobic Pet on "Ace"
Imagine you’re on the surgical table getting ready to have one of your kidneys removed — a procedure you’re not likely excited about. Your anesthesiologist has given you a medication to make you groggy and unable to move but hasn’t given you anything that will prevent you from feeling or experiencing the pain. In fact, the medication they’ve administered may actually make you more sensitive to the pain!
Acepromazine is a sedative (tranquilizer) that works on the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain by blocking dopamine. This means that your pet will still be aware of the phobia-inducing stimuli but will not be able to respond to them due to this blocking effect. It’s essentially immobilizing the animal, also referred to as a "chemical straight jacket." As a result, a noise phobic pet may actually become more fearful of noises while under the influence of acepromazine.
So, although acepromazine, a very powerful and effective tranquilizer, may make it look like your dog or cat is handling the fireworks or thunderstorm well, they are actually suffering just as much, if not more. Acepromazine prevents them from showing how anxious or frightened they really are as they are unable to do anything about it.
Always Trial New Medications with Your Dog Prior to Fireworks
Not every medication is going to be appropriate for every dog and every situation. Once you and your veterinarian or board-certified veterinary behaviorist have established what the right medication and starting dose is for your pet, it is always important to perform a trial of any and all medications, whether they are nutraceuticals or prescription medications, prior to any phobic event. This way you know exactly what to expect from your pet after they take the medication when an actual phobic event occurs.
During the trial, you can determine if the dose is correct, too high, or too low. You should also be monitoring closely for any adverse effects as a result of administering the medication such as vomiting, diarrhea, any swelling of the muzzle, around the eyes or nose, or oversedation.
Additionally, pre-existing conditions and any medications your pet is currently taking are all going to play into what medication and dosage your veterinarian or board-certified behaviorist is going to recommend.
You also don’t want to leave your pet alone or unmonitored after giving them a new medication — especially one for anxiety, as one of their most common side-effects is sedation. Your dog could fall off of furniture, down the stairs, choke on food or water, or accidentally injure themselves in a variety of ways.
And it should go without saying, but it’s important enough to say anyway… never give your pets any medication or supplement without first speaking with your veterinarian. As with other drug classes, when dealing with behavior modification medications, there can be significant undesirable side effects when drugs are inappropriately used together or when they’re given at inappropriate dosages — including a serious condition known as Serotonin Syndrome.
Everybody and every pet can have different experiences with different prescription medications. And while these medications for noise phobias can be incredibly helpful in managing and easing your pet’s stress and anxiety, it’s also important to address the underlying phobia with proper behavioral modification using desensitization and counter conditioning. Seek out the support you and your pet need by connecting with a certified behavior consultant, your veterinarian, or a veterinary behaviorist to help your dog or cat live a healthy and happy life.
Does your dog have noise anxiety? Please share your experience in the comments below so we can best help dogs and dog lovers everywhere.