What causes noise anxiety in dogs? Not just thunder, guns, and fireworks

If a dog is acting anxious at home for no apparent reason and the smoke detector is chirping, you might want to change the batteries.

That’s among the findings of a recent study out of UC Davis that sheds new light on the sounds that trigger fearful behaviors in dogs.

Previous studies report that as many as half of all dogs suffer from noise sensitivity. But the UC Davis team says those studies focus on dramatic, infrequent sounds—fireworks, thunder, gunshots—that dogs don’t encounter on a daily basis.

Lead author Emma Grigg, MA, PhD, CAAB, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, wanted to find out how dogs reacted to “common” household sounds, which were defined as sounds that occurred daily, as well as other sounds that dogs hear in their homes regularly, although not every day.

Grigg and her team surveyed 386 dog owners about their dogs’ responses and examined 62 online videos to record dogs’ behaviors when exposed to household sounds—as well as their owners’ reactions while watching these videos of their dogs’ behaviors. Grigg and her team found that owners not only underestimated their dogs' fearfulness, but that most people viewing the videos responded with amusement rather than concern over their dog’s welfare.

Those sounds included:

  • Smoke alarms
  • Smoke detector chirps due to dead or low batteries
  • Microwave humming
  • Automated vacuum cleaners (e.g., Roomba)
  • Carbon monoxide test beeps
  • Microwave beeping
  • Regular vacuum cleaners

The researchers found that intense signs of fear, such as trembling, were significantly more likely to be seen in the presence of sounds characterized as high frequency intermittent (HFI), such as smoke detector beeps.

Behaviors associated with arousal, agitation, and excitement—barking, lunging—were more commonly seen in the presence of low frequency constant (LFC) sound sources, such as vacuum cleaners, although behavioral signs of fear—lip licking, ears tucked back—were also seen with LFC sounds.

Grigg told NEWStat that one reason HFI noises are more likely  to cause anxiety in dogs than LFC noises is because, compared to humans, dogs have a greater  sensitivity to high frequency soundsand the amplification process of the dog’s ear is greater than that of humans: “So what’s loud—by design in some cases, given the purpose of smoke detectors—may be uncomfortably loud for the dogs.”  These more marked reactions to HFI noise are also in line with existing research on noise sensitivity in dogs.

As to why so many dog owners underestimate their dogs’ level of noise anxiety, Grigg said it’s because they’re not very good at reading canine body language that indicate stress, particularly the more subtle signs: “The fact that these noises are perceived as 'normal' household noises may also make the dogs’ behavior more inexplicable to owners.”

However, she said owners can take steps to be more attuned to noise anxiety in dogs: “I generally recommend that anyone living with a dog take a few minutes to familiarize themselves with the full range of body language in dogs,” she said.

Veterinarians can help by telling clients what to look for. “Some well accepted signs of stress in dogs include whale eye, body tensing, firmly closed mouth, tail tucked, head lowered (to shoulder level, for example), ears pressed back, shrinking/leaning/moving away from the source of their discomfort.”  

When clients see these signs, advise them to  consider why the dog might be behaving in this way, and intervene to change the situation. “For example, by removing the dog from the situation or removing the source of the stress from the dog’s environment, or by doing some classical conditioning to build a positive association with the trigger.”

Grigg said both veterinarians and owners are continually surprised by some of the sounds that can cause noise anxiety.

“The big one that comes up again and again is the low-battery warning beep made by many smoke and carbon monoxide-detectors,” she said. “We obviously need these devices in our homes for safety, but I recommend that people make a point of changing all the batteries in these devices frequently—every six months or so.”

We’re supposed to do this anyway, but often forget until the beeping sound reminds us, she notes. “Veterinarians can absolutely recommend doing that. The goal here is to never hear that low-battery warning beep.”

In fact, Grigg said, the study was inspired by a dog belonging to one of her researchers and the animal’s anxious reaction to that particular beep.

Grigg said it was “gratifying” to see that dogs’ more marked reactions to these HFI sounds—which have been observed anecdotally for years—were supported by the data: “The tendency of some owners to misinterpret or dismiss their dog’s anxiety did not surprise me, sadly, but I think this just underscores the need for better education of dog owners about their dogs’ normal behavior, body language, and needs.”

Photo credit © Mypurgatoryyears/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

NEWStat Advancements & research