Fireworks season is upon us – but whilst we enjoy the colourful displays, this time of year can be very distressing for our pets. Studies show that around 50% of dogs show some fear of fireworks.
Signs that your dog is fearful of loud noises include trembling, panting, salivating, restlessness, hiding, destructiveness, freezing, and inappropriate toileting. Unfortunately, in 96% of cases, firework phobias get worse after each experience, and also worsen with age. If your pet has experienced any of these symptoms in the past, then it is important to seek advice from one of our vets, as early as possible. Treatments are available to help your pet. Your pet should first have a full health check and examination carried out by a vet. This is important to check for any underlying medical conditions that could affect your dog’s ability to cope, or could exacerbate a fear of loud noises, for example joint pain. Sudden noises can result in muscle tension – that can exacerbate pain.
Consider preparing the following:
Building a cosy den for your pet – whilst this may not be the most convenient location for you, this should be in an area where your dog or cat already chooses to hide when fearful, which may or may not be their usual bed or resting place. It needs to be well soundproofed, consider covering the den with an old duvet, and provide lots of bedding (eg old towels or blankets) so they can dig if they want to hide. They will need 24/7 access to leave or enter the den as they wish. This gives them a sense of control, and promotes confidence to spend increasing amounts of time outside of the den during fireworks. The den should be well established several weeks prior to exposure to fireworks to allow them to develop a strong positive association with it – you can train your dog to enjoy and settle in their den, with chews or activity feeders.
Soundproofing – during fireworks close curtains and turn up the TV or radio to try and reduce the impact of firework noise and flashes.
Safety – ensure your pets are safe indoors, and windows and doors are closed. Scared dogs and cats will sometimes attempt to bolt. It is also sensible to ensure that your pet is microchipped and your contact details registered to the microchip are up to date.
Feeding – try feeding your pet a little earlier than usual, a full up tummy can help them relax. Pheromones – talk to your vet or vet nurse about calming aids. Plug-in diffusers and sprays that release dog-appeasing or feline-facial pheromones can help to increase a pet’s capability to relax in certain locations, so are great to use in and around hiding places/dens. They won’t magically cure a pet’s phobia without behavioural therapy, but will help them to learn to cope.
Don’t ignore your dog – if your dog is seeking attention or reassurance, then give it. Receiving reassurance can reduce their stress levels and help them cope with the fearful event in the very short term. The concern is that ignoring a frightened dog that is seeking dependence on you might cause them further distress. Provide them the reassurance, as much as they need to get through the fireworks season. However, this is not a long-term strategy, as constantly reassuring a dog during fearful events may in the long-term lead to separation anxiety. So, once the season is over, make an appointment to see one of our vets to get referred to a canine behaviourist.
Medication – Simple sedatives such as acetyl promazine are rarely the answer to helping pets through the firework season. They have potential side effects, especially in older animals, and often will stop your pet from showing outward signs of trembling etc but they will still be aware of what’s going on, so they are still scared but just unable to react. This can actually make them more fearful and the problem could get worse next time they hear loud noises. Some other medications, however, may be used in the short term to reduce acute responses to fireworks or to reduce their memory of the event – alongside long-term support from a qualified veterinary behaviourist.
Behavioural therapy – speak to one of our vets about referral to a qualified behaviourist who will be able to tailor an individual treatment plan including counter conditioning and desensitisation, and be able to provide ongoing support. This will be a commitment and require perseverance, and should be organised well ahead of firework season but is the key to helping your pet in the long term.