Fear of Fireworks
Authored by: Becky Lundgren, DVM
Summer is full of celebrations involving fireworks. Canada has Canada Day on July 1, the USA has Independence Day on July 4, and France has Bastille Day on July 14. Dogs and cats react to fireworks as individuals. Some aren’t upset by the explosions, and others get hurt by panicking and jumping through closed windows or bolting through doors to get away from the terrifying noise and lights.
American pet advocacy groups point out that the number of escapees is so high that Independence Day is the busiest day of the year in shelters — and that many pets get lost, injured, or killed. You should know which clinics or emergency hospitals will be open during fireworks season, in case you need one, as this will help you avoid time delays and stress.
Your pets will do better if they’re not left home alone during fireworks events. That’s not always feasible, so think ahead before leaving them alone.
Signs of anxiety can include pacing, trembling, panting, drooling, attention-seeking (vocalizing, pawing, nuzzling, and climbing on people), hiding, and bolting. Escape attempts tend to involve hiding behind furniture, and staying in a basement or bathroom. Because the source of the noise is confusing, inside dogs may want to escape to the outside, and outside dogs may be frantic to get inside.
Nervous pets tend to drink more water, so keep more available than usual. (And remember, these summer events usually mean hotter weather, and the likelihood of power problems, so extra water is already a good idea.) Bring outside pets inside, so they can’t bolt. Keep your cats securely inside, and if your dog needs a potty break during the fireworks, take him outside on a leash, even in a fenced yard. Make sure all your pets are wearing an ID tag or a collar that contains your phone number. Tags and collars can be lost, so a microchip is even more useful in helping you find your lost pet.
What can you do to keep your frightened pet safe and calm? For many frightened pets, just staying in a crate (as long as they are used to one) or in a “safe” room with a closed door is all that’s needed.
Synthetic pheromone sprays such as Feliway for cats and Adaptil (formerly called D.A.P.) for dogs are available at pet stores. These sprays imitate the properties of the natural pheromones of the lactating female that gives kittens or puppies a sense of well-being.
An herbal relaxant called Composure comes in chews for dogs and cats.
Some pets respond to pressure wraps, such as Thundershirts or Anxiety Wraps. The pressure on the body may have a calming effect.
Ear muffs to muffle sound are also available.
Calming caps cover a dog’s eyes to reduce visual stimulation.
If you can plan ahead for these summer events, veterinary behaviorists often recommend behavior modification, classical counter conditioning, and teaching a desirable coping response.
In behavior modification, controlling the intensity of the fireworks is necessary and often the most challenging part. While it often isn’t possible to expose a fearful dog to only “little fireworks,” controlling other factors can help. Distance from the fireworks can be less intimidating, as would be keeping the dog indoors. Music may disguise the bursts of noise; consider loud music with a regular beat.
Classical counter conditioning can create a positive association with fireworks if the anxiety isn’t extreme. Give high-value food rewards (canned food or peanut butter), offer your pet his favorite toys or food puzzle toys, or have your pet practice his tricks with you. The goal is for him to learn that fireworks result in highly pleasant rewards.
You can teach a desirable coping response. The appropriate response for a dog facing something frightening is to retreat to a safe place until the frightening thing ends. Providing a safe retreat, such as a crate or a closet, will give security and confidence, although selecting the location is up to the pet. Blankets to muffle the sound and a pheromone diffuser will provide natural motivation for the dog to seek this location. Being able to cope when the world becomes overwhelming is a life skill essential for both people and dogs! Hiding is not a sign of a problem, if the pet quickly returns to a normal behavior when the fireworks are over.
It’s easier to prevent a fearful reaction than it is to reverse one. If your pet is nervous around loud, unexpected noises, a short-term sedative before the fireworks start may be just the ticket. Talk to your veterinarian ahead of time, so you can have something on hand to give your pet before the fireworks start. Some medications often used for fireworks or thunderstorm phobias in dogs are Xanax and Valium.
Some severely anxious pets may benefit from drugs like clomipramine or fluoxetine that increase the level of serotonin. However, these drugs can take several weeks, if not more, to build up to an effective level, so this is not spur-of-the-moment fix.
You have many choices of how to help your pet cope with fireworks stress. Talk to your veterinarian about what is best for your pet. Hopefully, everyone in the family will then be able enjoy the holiday!