Fireworks can be an enjoyable spectacle, but not for everybody. Many dogs and cats are very frightened by loud noises, and in some this fear is severe enough to be a noise phobia. For these pets and their owners, the days or weeks around November 5th each year can be a nightmare.
The sorts of behaviour shown by noise phobic pets when they hear fireworks (or thunder or gunshots) can range from mild anxiety to sheer terror. In between these two extremes pets may pace around, refuse to settle, whine, bark, chew things up, dig holes, urinate or defaecate indoors or run away. A pet which bolts when frightened is at risk of having or causing a road accident. As owners, naturally we all want to reduce the distress our pets are feeling.
There is a lot that can be done to help pets through these problems, and the key to this is to plan as early as possible. Seek advice from your local veterinary surgery, where your vet or nurse will be able to help you decide on the best strategy for your pet.
Making your pet a safe “den” where they can retreat when they feel scared can help. Playing music or having the television on may reduce the amount of distant noise your pet will hear, but will not mask fireworks which are close by. Walk your dog early in the day while it is still light, when fireworks are much less likely, and provide your cat with a litter tray, allowing them to get used to it well in advance.
The way you react when your pet shows fear is most important, and probably the most difficult thing to get right. Our natural reaction is always to soothe and comfort our pet, but this will only reinforce their belief that there is something to be afraid of. The best way to help them is to ignore the fireworks yourself, try to act as you normally would and ignore your pet’s behaviour as much as possible. This does not come naturally to anyone who has a distressed pet, but it really can help.
Desensitisation to noise over a period of time by using special tapes or CDs can be very successful. It is time consuming and requires commitment on the part of the owner. This is a long term strategy, but can be used in conjunction with other methods. There are also other ways in which a behaviourist may be able to help your pet to react differently to stressful situations.
Pheromones are chemical substances which are released in nature by nursing bitches and have a calming effect on their young. Similar facial pheromones are produced by cats to communicate with other cats by rubbing against objects. These chemicals are not masked by smells as they are not detected by the nose but by a quite separate receptor. There are several ways in which synthetic pheromones can be used to calm animals in stressful situations. Synthetic pheromones are available as collars, as sprays or in plug-in diffusers, and your surgery can advise you which would be most appropriate and how to use them. They need to be used properly according to the instructions to be successful.
Many people assume that the only solution would be to sedate their pet so that they sleep through the noise, but there are several drawbacks to this. Firstly, sedatives are prescription only medicines which cannot legally be supplied to you over the counter unless your vet is satisfied that he/she has examined your pet recently enough to know what state of health they are in. Popping in to the surgery for some sedatives on November 4th is not likely to be successful. Secondly, different animals react differently to the same drug sometimes, so your vet may want to find the best dosage by having a trial run. Thirdly, if fireworks in your area go on for days or weeks, it is unlikely to be a good idea to sedate your dog or cat repeatedly.
If sedatives are used, there has been a change over recent years away from some types which may make the animal quite immobile but do little or nothing to calm its fear. More commonly used now are drugs which calm the animal but do not necessarily knock it out.
Top tips for coping with fireworks fear:
- 1) Plan ahead & ask for advice at your vets.
- 2) Make sure your dogs are walked early in the day and then kept in. Provide cats with a litter tray.
- 3) Make a safe den where your pet can retreat.
- 4) Play music or TV, try to act normally.
- 5) Resist the temptation to soothe and comfort your pet.
- 6) Follow instructions carefully for best results from pheromone products or sedatives.
- 7) If you left it too late to plan properly this year, make a note in next year’s diary now.
If you are worried about any specific symptoms your pet is showing, talk to your vet or try out our Interactive Symptom Guide to see what you should do.