Noise Sensitivity and Pain In Dogs

New research suggests an association
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2018

A recent study about noise sensitivities in dogs gives us new information that could improve the quality of life and well-being of a lot of dogs. The research suggests that pain can be a cause of new noise sensitivities, especially in older dogs. The recommendations based on the work are 1) older dogs who become noise sensitive should be routinely assessed for pain, and 2) analgesics or other pain management strategies should be considered.

Researchers compared two groups of dogs who both had sound sensitivities of various kinds. Dogs in the study all had fearful responses to sounds such as cars, planes, gunshots, motorcycles, fireworks or thunderstorms. One group of dogs had also been diagnosed with a pain condition while the other group contained dogs who were apparently free of such pain. (It’s hard to know for sure that a dog is pain-free, but these dogs had been evaluated and not found to be in pain.) The two groups of dogs were generally similar in age, spay/neuter status, temperament and did not vary substantially by breed. All were referred by other veterinarians to the specialty clinic where the research was conducted.

There were some really interesting differences between the two groups of dogs. Dogs in pain had a later onset of reactivity to noise, and that difference was nearly four years. Additionally, these dogs had a more generalized response to noises and a tendency to avoid places or situations in which a negative experience with noise had occurred. Finally, the dogs in pain had more social problems with other dogs, including a tendency to avoid them.

The authors of the study hypothesize that startling in response to loud sounds may exacerbate pain. The resulting muscle tension or sudden movement may aggravate tender areas of the body, therefore creating an association between loud noises and pain, which could lead to the development of a fear of such sounds. They assume, reasonably, that pain is more likely to develop as dogs age.

It has long been known that when older dogs suddenly become aggressive, especially to other dogs, that pain may be the cause. Naturally, the chasing, wrestling and other behaviors so common in play can increase the pain in a dog with an injury or other physical issue, causing the dog to avoid such behavior and to react to dogs who attempt to initiate play.

All of the dogs who were in pain except one improved substantially with treatment, confirming the researchers’ assertions that prognosis is excellent once the role of pain is identified and the case managed accordingly. (The guardian of the one dog who did not improve chose not to use analgesics to alleviate the dog’s pain.) Once the pain is managed, it is still often necessary to use behavioral techniques to help dogs overcome the learned associations with loud noises.

In the early years of my own work with dogs who have serious behavioral issues, I had observed that many older dogs became thunderstorm-phobic or developed noise sensitivities that seemed out of character, and I wished that I knew why. I had wondered if changes in the amygdala or other parts of the brain associated with fear could be a factor. The idea that pain can play a role in the development of new fears makes sense, and that is more likely to happen to older dogs because they are more likely to have physical issues that cause pain. We have long known that sudden onset of aggression and other behavioral issues is often a clue that pain is a factor, especially in older dogs.

Hopefully, the insights in this work will encourage practitioners to explore pain as a possible culprit in older dogs who develop a fear of loud noises. The more we understand about dog behavior—dogs in general as well as each dog as an individual—the better we are able to care for these wonderful creatures who share our lives and our hearts.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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