7 Tips to Ease Your Pets’ Fireworks Fears
Posted June 23, 2008 12:44 p.m. EDT
Updated June 25, 2008 9:43 a.m. EDT
While the Fourth of July is a time for fireworks and celebration, for many pets and their owners it can be a nightmare. The loud noises, flashing lights, and smell of sulfur can cause excessive fear in pets. Nervous behaviors such as trembling, whimpering, and panting may be distressful to the pet, but the animal’s natural response to flee from what he interprets as a threatening situation may result in serious injury. Some dogs are so frightened by fireworks that they may run through glass windows, or escape from the yard and run the risk of being hit by a car.
Here are a few tips to keep your pet calm and safe this Fourth of July:
- Leave your pets at home and indoors. Most pets are afraid of fireworks and may try to run away.
- Close all doors and windows and put on background music to muffle the sound.
- Close curtains and blinds to block the flashing lights.
- Be sure that your pets are wearing identification tags or have microchips in case they do run away or get lost.
- Try to distract your pet with chew toys and games, or play with another pet that does not share his fear.
- If you have time, desensitization techniques with appropriate sound CDs, such as thunder, fireworks, trains, sirens, etc. may help pets get used to the sounds at a lower volume, then as they become more comfortable, gradually increase the volume.
- If your pet has noise phobias, speak to your veterinarian about a natural homeopathic, non-sedating remedy to keep your pet calm during storm and fireworks seasons.
Behavior Problems in Pets
Fear of Fireworks
A fear of fireworks—and of loud noises generally—is common in dogs and other pets, and in many cases is accompanied by other anxieties, such as thunderstorm phobia or separation anxiety. Dogs with multiple anxieties appear be predisposed to such fears.
For many dogs, the age at which such a phobia develops is not known. Sometimes, even with older dogs, it can originate from being exposed to a sudden loud noise that is particularly disturbing. Some pets may have been exposed to stressful or loud noises when still very young, leaving a lasting bad memory. For fireworks, it may not be just the noise causing the problem—it may the flash of light that accompanies the loud noise, or the strong sulfur smell that comes after the explosion, or it may be the suddenness or the frequency of the noise (like an explosion or a screeching rocket).
A dog’s excessive fear, or phobia, is damaging to its welfare. The behaviors that result from the fear, such as trembling, whimpering, panting, constantly seeking the owners attention (or protection), and attempting to escape from the noise, can cause injury to the dog and are stressful to the owner. This can be particularly frustrating when a pet over-reacts to fireworks even though it is clear that the stimulus that caused the problem is temporary and clearly of no threat.
Managing the Behavior
The most important aspect of solving a dog phobia problem is to manage and decondition the behavior. The first step is to avoid doing anything that reinforces the behavior. For instance, if the dog runs away and escapes the noise, that behavior is reinforced. Similarly, the fear response will be reinforced if an owner rewards the behavior with extra attention to the dog through stroking it, or trying to reassure it in any other way. The opposite approach of becoming angry or reproaching the dog will also be counterproductive. One tactic that may be useful is playing a game with the dog to distract it from the fireworks, or having it play with another dog (as long as the other dog does not have the same fear).
A veterinarian can dispense various products to help alleviate these phobias. However, the treatments that are available for dog phobias are very limited, none have been proven to work completely, and there are no drugs registered to treat fireworks phobias in dogs. Treatments for fear of fireworks fall into two broad categories—drugs and alternative therapies such as dog appeasing pheromone and homeopathic treatments.
The drugs most commonly used in treating fear of fireworks include benzodiazepine, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). These have possible side effects such as lethargy and sedation, and in some cases may cause vomiting. Usually treatment needs to be started weeks ahead of the stimulus that causes the phobia. In many cases, this is just not practical. In contrast, natural homeopathic remedies do not cause side effects and have received promising reports. Homeopathy is a traditional area of medicine that has become established over centuries of use, and now appears to be making a resurgence in veterinary medicine.
Regardless of the treatment used to reduce a pet’s fear of fireworks and loud noises, it is important to recognize that a single approach is very rarely adequate. Any treatment should be combined with every possible effort to include constructive behavioral modification that can improve the welfare of the pet and reduce the stress on the pet and owner alike.