Another fireworks season has begun, and already we’re seeing reports of dogs being “scared to death” by fireworks. This isn’t an isolated incident either – every year similar reports surface (for example, in 2018, 2017, and 2007). In many cases, this is put down to a “heart attack” or “fright”; in others, it’s the dog’s attempt to escape from the terrifying noises that kills them. But is this a real thing? Are fireworks really that dangerous?
Yes, they are that dangerous. Not because your dog is likely to die from fright (although see below…), but because so many dogs suffer terribly from severe psychological distress as a result of the stress that they suffer when fireworks are being let off in the vicinity. RSPCA data suggests that over 60% of dogs show marked signs of distress when exposed to firework displays, even outside the home. Applied to the UK canine population, that suggests that there are at least five and a half million dogs that are subjected to unnecessary fear and distress every year.
But can it kill them?
Directly, it’s very unlikely – but not impossible. While I’m unaware of any situations where it’s been conclusively demonstrated that a completely healthy dog has died from fear, a dog with a (possibly unrecognised) underlying health condition (such as certain heart conditions) certainly could. This might explain why most of the reports are of very old or very young dogs. While there aren’t any post mortem test results available from most of these reports, it is theoretically possible and therefore we must take them at face value.
So should fireworks be banned?
It is one option, that is being strongly promoted by many animal welfare groups. There are a number of petitions to restrict or ban the use of firework displays, and I do sympathise – banning them would save a LOT of distress.
Personally, though, I think banning things is generally a bad knee-jerk reaction. Remember, 40% of dogs aren’t distressed at all by the presence of fireworks, so I think we need to look to these to try and find a long-term solution. The most likely explanation is that most of these dogs aren’t “braver” but were socialised when young puppies to accept unexpected loud noises and lights as being normal. Perhaps we should be putting a Sounds Scary CD into every puppy pack?! And of course, this principle of desensitisation can work on almost any dog, at any age (it just takes longer in an older dog; and if your dog has already developed a phobia, you may need advice from a good, qualified, canine behaviourist – see your vet for recommendations).
But is there anything I can do NOW?!
Yes! There’s great advice here from the Dogs Trust. Top tips…
1) Build a safe den where they can hide away from the nastiness outdoors
2) Make sure you walk them early on, so they’re tired before dark and the fireworks begin.
3) Get Adaptil diffusers set up in your home – it’s a bit late now but it may still help.
4) Close the windows and curtains and turn on the radio or TV. Not only will this help drown out the sounds from outdoors, but it will also make it harder for your dog to escape and hurt themselves.
5) Try to stay calm yourself and reward calm behaviour in your dog – if you’re stressed, so will they be! And never punish a dog for showing signs of fear – you’ll just confuse them and make matters worse.
6) If all else fails, contact your vet for emergency medication to help your dog cope.
Bottom line – desensitisation is the solution, but you need to live through this year first! Talk to your vet for advice, stay calm, and ride it out.