Generally, the human reaction to fireworks is one of great joy and excitement; however, for our pets it can be a quite different story! Fireworks can cause significant distress ranging from involuntary bowel movements to aggression. Fear of fireworks is much more common in dogs than might at first be evident. In the worst cases a frightened dog can become a danger to itself and others in its company. The way we go about dealing with this delicate situation can have a lasting impact on our pets.
Pre-planning for firework season
A dog's natural coping strategy is to flee from fear and hide. Most dogs will have somewhere they take refuge go if they are feeling insecure. If not, you may have to create a suitable space, cupboards are ideal for this. Including an item of clothing that smells of you can also helo to reassure them. It is essential that your dog can hide alone until they feel safe to re-join the family unit. Whenever possible, walk your dog in daylight, keeping them on the lead to stop them running off in a panic. If your pet is not microchipped yet, this would be a good time to get it done.
Dog appeasing pheromones make dogs feel more relaxed and confident. Synthetically produced pheromones mimic those of a nursing bitch and help reduce anxiety in adult dogs. They can be useful in all situations where dogs feel stressed as they subconsciously associate the pheromone with a sense of security. Pheromones are available as diffusers, sprays or collars. The pheromone diffuser should be sited inside the hiding place or as close to it as possible. For the best results operate it for 24 hours a day two weeks either side of Bonfire Night. It is still worth using the pheromone products even if there are only a few days to go before the event.
Traditional sedatives used to help dogs through phobic events can make the problem worse in the long term. Sedated dogs remain conscious and afraid of the fireworks but are unable to react. So while they may seem unaffected they often retain a fear of loud noises. Products from a bioactive protein found in milk (Neutraceutical) can be useful in calming stress in both dogs and cats and may give enough relief to helpo your pet through firework season.
Anxiety relieving drugs such as diazepam have proved to be more effective in reducing noise-related anxiety.
Dose dependant, these drugs can block a dog's memory of an event or reduce anxiety. Diazepam is better than a sedative because it blocks memory, so the dog cannot remember being frightened. However, your dog may appear a little more unsettled than with a sedative. To test whether diazepam will be a suitable medication, the vet will give your dog a thorough health examination and prescribe a test dose. A small number of dogs given diazepam will show side effects. These are temporary and not dangerous but may mean that it will not be a suitable medication. Your vet will request that a low-test dose be given at a time when you can keep your dog inside and supervised for at least 3-4 hours. The effects the drug last for about 4 hours, and you should see very little effect on your dog's behaviour. They should be supervised during this time and prevented from attempting stairs or areas where co-ordination and balance are essential. Side effects such as pacing, panting, staggering as if drunk or anxiety are rare and will pass with no long-term effects but probably mean that another drug would be more suitable.
The Pet Vet Top Tips
When fireworks are anticipated, ensure pets are safely indoors with doors and windows securely closed. Where possible take dogs out to the toilet before dark and always on a lead in case of unexpected fireworks:
- Close curtains early to reduce external noise and play music or keep the TV turned up to mask sounds of fireworks.
- Ignore any fearful behaviour and carry on normally.
- If they seek comfort or reassurance, then give it to them.
- Don't punish your pet as this will reinforce the fear reaction.
- Allow your dog to hide in his or her 'bolt hole' and leave them alone where they feel most secure.
- Try not to go out during potentially upsetting events as this will increase the dog's anxiety.
- For cats, secure their cat flap at dusk (or once in) so they are not out during fireworks. If they are used to going outside ensure they have their litter tray, food and water bowls inside.
Preparing for future events
The best solution is to reduce the fear by 'desensitising' the dog to loud noises by gradual, controlled exposure and positive reinforcement. Rewarding the dogs for good behaviour will gradually allow them to associate the noises with positive experiences. Desensitisation training takes time; however, it offers a long-term solution to reduce noise-based anxiety. It is common for dogs with sound sensitivity or noise phobias to develop a reaction to a range of different sounds. A fear of fireworks can become generalised to include all bangs, such as gunshots, balloons popping, cars backfiring and even seemingly unrelated sounds. We recommend the 'Sounds Scary' CD which has a range of noises and comes with a booklet explaining how to introduce the noises to your dog. It is best to focus on the noise that most affects your dog first.
For further information, help and advice, please contact your local The Pet Vet surgery.