With the New Year fireworks about to begin, we assembled a panel to discuss the problems that fireworks post for animals and animal welfare.
Joining me (David Harris BVSc PGCert VetEd FHEA MRCVS, from VetHelpDirect) are Rachel Kenvyn (BVSc PgC(SAS) MRCVS), Sian Tranter (MA VetMB CertAVP MRCVS), and Joe Dunne (BVMedSci).
What is the impact of fireworks on dogs?
David: I think the simple answer is – “it depends on the dog”! For some it’s deeply traumatic, for some it’s unimportant, but for many it is at least an uncomfortable or distressing experience.
Rachel: Some dogs, especially ones with a calm disposition, are seemingly not bothered by fireworks. Sadly, this is not the case for a lot of dogs. The unpredictable nature of loud noises and bright flashes of light, especially when near to residences, may trigger intense fear and anxiety in dogs. Before domestication, when a dog was fearful, a ‘fight or flight’ response was triggered. A dog can either meet its threat with aggression (fight) or run away from the threat (flight). Dogs are mostly unable to use this innate behavioural response when the threat of fireworks approaches them in their own homes. They are unable to escape or fight. This can be very damaging for the mental health of our pets and in some circumstances may also impact their physical health.
Sian: We may find fireworks loud, but those bangs are amplified for animals. All companion animals have more sensitive hearing than we do, so they hear a larger range of sounds and all noises are louder. Dogs have exceptional hearing and faced with sudden, unidentifiable, unpredictable loud noises, many develop and suffer from firework phobia. They exhibit a spectrum of unease from anxiety to terror. Some people liken the syndrome to post-traumatic stress disorder in humans.
It is principally a noise phobia, but if dogs are outside they may also be frightened by the flashes of light. While 1 in 2 dogs are thought to have some form of firework phobia, there is also a 15% increase in dogs who go missing during the firework season. Attempting to flee the loud noises can result in destructive behaviour or running blindly so the incidence of road traffic accidents and trauma also increases during this time.
Joe: Anything that scares or distresses a dog, such as the sudden loud noises and unexpected bright lights from fireworks, triggers their ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This is where their body releases cortisol and other hormones that prepares your dog for a ‘fight or flight’ situation. This can present as vocalisation, aggression, running away and hiding, defaecation and urination, destruction and more. While the fight or flight mechanism is a normal physiological response, we should try and prevent it happening to our pets wherever possible.
David: That’s a really good point about the physical injuries – there’s often a spike in road traffic accidents around bonfire night and new year, largely as pets run off in fear and get hit by cars.
Joe: Yes, and fireworks themselves can be dangerous – all pets can be burned by badly aimed fireworks, can run off into roads or go missing, or can end up fighting each other. Bonfire Night is a dangerous time to be a pet…
David: And there can be even more issues with working dogs. Once a phobia has developed, it can be triggered by any loud unexpected noise.
Sian: The Irish Guide Dog Society has drawn attention to the impact of fireworks on Guide Dogs. Some Guide Dogs with firework phobia are frightened to go outside and have had to retire leaving their blind owner unsupported.
What about longer-term health issues?
David: Well, when bonfire night was one-night only, we only really had to deal with acute stress – yes it might be bad (and awful for animal welfare) on 5th November, but then it was more or less over for another year. But nowadays, “Firework Season” often lasts for several months. That results in a chronic stressor, that can cause more serious ongoing effects, in addition to the mental suffering.
Joe: Stress also has an effect long-term as well, so a dog chronically scared by firework season may have chronic stress – this can lead to excessive hunger and thirst, damage to organs and bones, a weakened immune system and more behavioural issues. Stress really is quite a serious thing.
OK, so how about cats?
David: Their response is similar, but not the environment we keep them in. As a result, I think cats are at much greater risk from secondary physical harm – being hit by cars, for example – than dogs are.
Rachel: Cats, like all wild animals, associate loud noises with danger and when exposed to fireworks will be very fearful and stressed. Unlike dogs, cats are free-roaming animals and therefore may be outside when fireworks are being set off. Cats exposed to terrifying and unrelenting loud booms whilst outside may introduce other dangers, as they try to ‘escape’ their threat. Cats may bolt for safety, in many directions and unfortunately for some into the path of danger such as a busy road. Many cats may be completely disorientated by the time firework displays have ceased and may be lost and unable to find their safe way home.
Sian: Cats also have phenomenal hearing, so they are often frightened by loud noises. They can also suffer from a spectrum of symptoms of firework phobia. Most cats will try to escape the noise or hide. They may also try to get out of the house and can become agitated and aggressive if you attempt to handle them. As with dogs, some cats show mild anxiety others are terrified.
Joe: Much the same as in dogs – cats have a fight or flight mechanism similar to dogs. However, many cats will prefer to run rather than fight, so behaviour such as hiding or running away may be more common. Nevertheless, a cornered cat with nowhere to run can be aggressive, so be wary of your cat if they have been scared by fireworks.
What is the impact of fireworks on small pets?
Rachel: Many small pets are a prey species and will be easily frightened. Many small pets, such as guinea pigs and rabbits are often kept outdoors in hutches and thus may be directly exposed to the bangs and whizzes of fireworks. Unfortunately, rabbits can be easily stressed and may pass away if extremely frightened, especially if suffering from another illness.
David: That’s a really good point about fear causing deaths, especially in rabbits and small mammals.
Sian: Small pets are often prey species so they are easily frightened and hypervigilant to threat. Loud unpredictable noises may frighten them and cause them to try and flee or hide. Flashing lights also unsettle them and can cause anxiety. They can become very distressed and injure themselves trying to escape.
Joe: As prey animals, small furries like rabbits, guinea pigs, mice or hamsters have a stress response that causes them to hide and run where they can. However, in the confines of a small cage, this may not be possible. Small furries scared by fireworks can become aggressive, pull out their hair, stop eating and even die suddenly. Anyone with these pets should be extra careful.
There is less information out there on how pets like birds and reptiles respond to fireworks. We know they have stress responses and fight or flight mechanisms too, so it is probably a good idea to make steps to prevent them becoming scared. It can be difficult though, as these creatures often show stress in very subtle ways. When in doubt, assume they are being negatively affected by the fireworks.
David: I absolutely agree. When it comes to welfare, we have to take the precautionary principle, and assume that fireworks are likely to be scary to any animal – mammal, bird or reptile. Taking precautions to minimise sounds reaching the vivarium or aviary is just as important as protecting the kennel or hutch.
What is the impact of fireworks on horses and farm animals?
Rachel: Like many animals, farm animals and horses are easily frightened by bright flashes of light and loud noises inflicted on them by fireworks. When startled, these animals may inadvertently injure themselves within their stables, or on fencing and farm equipment.
Joe: Many horses and farm animals live in the countryside, where fireworks may be more distant. But we know that they can still have a negative effect on their wellbeing.
Sian: Horses are prey species and will attempt to flee from anything that frightens them. Some horses become agitated and distressed by fireworks. Unfortunately, this often results in panic and attempts to escape which can result in severe injury. Stabled horses may attempt to jump out of stables, pace, weave (moving from side to side repeatedly), climb doors and walls and hurt themselves. Those turned out in fields may jump out of their field in panic and run onto roads or into ditches. Panic often causes them to gallop at hazards without any self-preservation. One paper in New Zealand suggested that up to 79% of horses experience anxiety when fireworks are nearby and 26% will sustain injuries because of fireworks.
David: And a herd of horses or cattle can quite easily work themselves up to a stampede if one or two members become terrified. These are deeply social animals, and if any of them are afraid, the others – naturally – assume that there’s a reason for that. And that can result in a lot of nasty injuries, and smaller members of the herd being crushed.
Sian: Farm animals are equally likely to be frightened and attempt to flee, damaging themselves, property and potentially people who get in the way.
David: And being so large, the injuries are severe. But we’ve also got to remember that these are grazing animals – and spent fireworks coming to rest in apparently “uninhabited” pasture can be a disaster. I’ve seen cattle with serious internal injuries from consuming the wire from fireworks displays, just like Chinese lanterns. These can be really dangerous if they end up in the wrong place.
Sian: Zoo animals and wildlife are also likely to suffer from severe anxiety as a result of firework noise.
Joe: Recall the recent sad story from a zoo in Somerset, where a baby zebra was spooked by fireworks, and died trying to run away. This clearly indicates larger animals can be just as fearful of fireworks as traditional pets.
What cases have you seen of firework phobia?
Rachel: The number of pets affected by firework phobias appears to be increasing. Perhaps this is due to insufficient socialisation of puppies and/or increased usage of fireworks. Most owners that contact our veterinary practice are seeking advice on behavioural and/or medical management for their pet’s firework phobia. Owners often report that their pets are ‘paralysed’ with fear, often demonstrating many fear behaviours. Fear behaviours include shaking, shivering, hiding, panting and pacing. Many owners are understandably concerned about their pet’s welfare.
David: I’ve always practiced in fairly rural areas, where there’s a high proportion of gundogs – who are usually well desensitised to loud bangs! However, I’ve had to treat plenty dogs and even horses who require very potent medical support just to get through the night – that “paralysis of fear” syndrome, where the poor animal just shakes and pants, is so distressing to see. And by the time it’s got to that point, you’re really limited in what you can do.
Sian: I owned a dog with firework phobia for 16 years. Talking to many owners over the years, my observations resonated with those whose dogs were also severely affected.
November to January were awful months for Belle, who was a feisty Jack Russell terrier. Nothing else scared here but she was picked up as a stray of around 6 months in December, so I suspect she was first exposed to fireworks when she was abandoned as a puppy. It was distressing to watch her suffer but also frightening to leave her alone. She was utterly terrified. Panting rapidly, salivating and her heart rate was increased markedly. She would run from room to room trying to escape and destroy anything that got in her way. Medications eased her symptoms slightly on Bonfire night and New Year’s Eve. However, it is impossible to predict when people will let fireworks off. When there was no warning, there was no opportunity to medicate her.
Many owners have reported a range of symptoms in their own dogs from pacing to eating through doors and damaging walls. Firework phobia is very commonly reported in first opinion practice.
During my 24 years in practice I have seen many injuries that occurred as a result of firework phobia, road traffic accidents and even injuries caused by close contact with igniting fireworks. Sadly, some of these injuries have been fatal.
How can we manage firework- or noise-phobic animals at the time of a firework display?
Joe: Prior preparation is key in preventing firework stress, but sometimes the fireworks start suddenly, or you didn’t have time to plan. In these cases, ensure all doors, pet flaps and windows are secured, to prevent your animal escaping. Provide a warm cosy nest somewhere in the house that is quiet and secluded; cats may prefer to hide up high. Keep the room dark and draw curtains to stop the bright lights spooking them. You can try and block out the noise with a familiar sound, such as the TV, radio or your voice.
Rachel: For dogs, set up a ‘safe place’ – an area where a dog can retreat, hide and feel secure. Crate training puppies can provide an invaluable ‘den’ which can be covered with a blanket. Alternatively, a blanket may be draped over a table to provide a secure location for your frightened dog. Do not lock your dog in its crate or a particular location, it is best to allow your dog the freedom to choose a safe area within the house. Your dog may prefer to curl up in their usual space and this is fine too.
Close the curtains and leave the lights on to reduce the impact of bright flashes of light. Keep the windows closed.
Turn up the volume of the radio/TV to attempt to drown out the loud bangs. Classical music can be very calming for pets.
Avoid taking your dog outside when fireworks are likely to be set off. Be sure to take your dog out for a long walk well before dark. Make sure your dog’s microchip details are up to date, in case they are startled by a firework.
Provide your dog with a chew or pet-safe toy – chewing behaviour helps relieve anxiety.
Before letting dogs back out in the morning, check the garden to ensure it is secure and free from firework debris. Firework debris may still be hot and cause burns if stood on or chewed by dogs. Alternatively, firework debris may be toxic to dogs if licked or ingested.
Sian: When you expect fireworks, feed, walk and toilet your dog before it is dark. Provide a den in a quiet place. Heavy furniture and internal rooms may absorb the sound so construct a den or allow them access to the whole house so they can choose a hiding place. Draw the curtains to block out the flashes of light, put the radio or TV on to block out the sounds of fireworks. A chew, food treat or puzzle toy may be used distract your pet.
Rachel: Keep cats indoors after sunset. Lock the cat flap once they are in for the night and ensure windows are kept closed. Ensure you provide your cat with a litter tray, even if they are used to toileting outdoors.
Close the curtains and turn up the volume on the TV/radio. Classical music can also be soothing to cats. Provide plenty of hiding places. Cats often feel safe in high places. Cat ‘igloos’ are loved by most cats are they are dark and enclosed, which makes them feel safe. It is important to leave your cat when they choose to retreat into a hiding place as getting them back out is likely to increase their stress and anxiety. Stressed and anxious cats are more likely to bite or scratch you.
Before letting cats back out in the morning, check the garden to ensure it is secure and free from firework debris. Firework debris may still be hot and cause burns if stood on or licked by cats. Alternatively, firework debris may be toxic to cats if licked or ingested.
Ensure cats are microchipped and that the registration details are up to date.
Act normally. Your cat is more likely to be fearful and anxious if you are acting differently.
Sian: Ensure the house is secure, cats will squeeze through a small gap so close all windows and check the cat flap is secure. Synthetic pheromone products can be used to calm dogs and cats, these may be purchased as sprays, collars or diffusers.
Cats may enjoy a box turned upside down and covered in heavy blankets in a quiet place. Provide an indoor litter tray in a private corner. If pets are hiding do not attempt to handle them in case, they become aggressive.
If you have small pets, like rodents or rabbits, enclosures should be moved inside where possible or covered with dense material.
Rachel: If you are unable to bring hutches or cages indoors, an unused shed or garage is a great alternative, and provide extra bedding so that they can burrow and hide.
If you have a house rabbit, ensure that you close the curtains to block out bright flashes of light and turn up the volume on the TV or radio to help drown out the loud bangs. If your rabbit is not used to loud noises, then it is best not to have the volume on too loud as this may equally be frightening for them.
Rabbits are social animals and keeping them in pairs will help ensure they are happy and healthy. Companionship will also help limit stress during fearful events.
Rachel: Contact your vet for advice if your pet is still distressed after following this advice. Your vet may be able to prescribe anti-anxiety medications alongside a behavioural management plan.
Are there any behavioural dos or don’ts for owners?
Joe: When interacting with your scared pet, talk slowly and calmly. Reassure them that it is okay, and sit by them if they prefer. Be prepared that they may back away or hide from you – in these cases, it may be best to leave them alone. Be wary of aggression, as even the most loving pet could snap when under stress – never corner them.
Rachel: Act normally – your pet is less likely to think something is wrong if you are acting normally. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety it is best to leave them be. Do not fuss over a fearful animal as over-attention is more likely to confirm to your dog that there is something to be worried about.
Sian: In the past, it was thought that reassurance may reinforce the idea that something is wrong. However, it is not possible to reinforce fear so as long as they are able to interact, reassure your pet and stay calm and relaxed.
David: Yes, there’s a lot of confusion over this point isn’t there? I think the clearest way to put it is that we need to try and stay calm ourselves – and to reward calmer behaviour in our pets. I think the best option is always a good desensitisation programme to avoid the problem in the first place.
Sian: Do not attempt to desensitise them to fireworks by intentionally exposing them to a display. This will make them worse or even cause phobia.
David: Very good point! Yes, we’ll come back to that.
Joe: Your pet may become very vocal, have toilet accidents or become destructive – it is important not to become angry, and understand they are not being intentionally negative. Stay calm, clean up the mess if you can, and continue to reassure them. Shouting will just make your pet more afraid and worsen their stress.
Are there any medical options?
Rachel: Historically, sedative medications were used to treat firework phobias in pets. However, it was later realised that sedatives removed the pet’s ability to move away from fearful situations and did little to reduce fear and anxiety. Sedatives are therefore generally deemed an unethical treatment for noise phobias in pets. Modern treatments aim to reduce fear and anxiety to pets suffering from noise phobia. Medications should not be used alone but in combination with behavioural medications. Speak to your vet for advice on helping your pet that is suffering from firework phobia.
Sian: Historically, dogs were sedated with drugs that reduced their ability to react to fireworks. This is now known to increase phobia as the fear remains. Anxiolytic drugs, reduce anxiety. These drugs are now used preferentially as required. Anti-epileptic drugs have also been used. There is now a drug licensed for firework phobia so consult your vet for advice.
Joe: Vets offer plug in pheromones that can have a calming effect on some pets. There are also more powerful drugs that act directly to reduce anxiety. Both of these may be options if your pet is especially fearful. You could also ask your vet about behavioural therapy classes. There has also been some studies into whether CBD-products may offer some anti-anxiety effects – these products are new and untested, but it may be worth investigating with your vet if the above advice has not worked.
David: I think CBD has some promise, but we must stress that it isn’t licensed for use in animals yet, and that it isn’t legal to use CBD in pets without a veterinary prescription. The mainstay of treatment are medications of the benzodiazepine family – but they aren’t suitable for long-term use as dependency can occur. I’ve treated animals in a dependent state who started on long term medication for anxiety, but we were unable to wean them off. So a second medication that had similar effects but was suitable for longer term use would be ideal.
Is there anything we can do to reduce the fear of fireworks in the longer term?
David: Now we can talk about desensitisation! It’s a long, drawn out process but the results are usually spectacular.
Sian: The best treatment for firework phobia is densensitisation. This involves positive reinforcement while listening to a CD of firework sounds at a very low volume. Initially the dog or cat should barely be able to hear the noise. It is played when they eat, play or receive a treat. The volume can then be slowly raised over months. The volume is only raised slightly when the pet is comfortable and relaxed hearing the sounds. Although this takes months, it is an effective method and can substantially reduce the symptoms of firework phobia.
Joe: Acclimatisation is the best method – this is where you play a sound for a pet and show them that there are no negative consequences. Gradually, the sound volume is increased, and each time if the dog shows no negative reaction, you reward them positively. The point of this is to teach them that loud noises are nothing to be afraid of, so when the real fireworks start, they remember the loud noises from training and aren’t scared. This method requires some behavioural understanding, so ask your vet about it first.
Rachel: Desensitisation CDs may be purchased to allow your pet exposure to firework noises at a low volume and in a controlled manner. Gradually increasing the volume of the firework noises can help pets ‘get used’ to the noises of fireworks without being shocked and frightened by the sudden and unexpected loud bangs and whizzes that they may experience when fireworks are let off outside their homes.
How do we raise animals to be less badly affected?
Rachel: It is understood that noise phobias may develop in dogs due to a lack of exposure to loud noises as puppies. Ensuring puppies are well socialised and exposed to everyday noises during their early socialisation will help raise dogs that are less likely to be negatively affected by fireworks. I believe it is beneficial to include firework desensitisation in the routine training of all young pets.
Sian: Desensitising puppies is an effective way to reduce and prevent firework phobia. Short sessions while the pup is playing or eating can desensitise them to noise and eventually loud noise.
Joe: The important thing is to start young and start well before firework season. As above, acclimatisation therapy is the best thing you can do. Other useful tips to have a less nervous animal are lots of socialisation while young, prevent negative experiences (in this particular case, with loud noises and bright lights), and to get them regularly checked by a vet (both for health purposes, and as another experience where they can learn to be brave – vets should try and make young animal’s first visits as comfortable as possible).
David: I think there’s a bit of an elephant in the room here, too. I absolutely agree about desensitising young animals – but there’s also plenty of evidence that early life can influence how likely a dog in particular is to develop anxiety or fear-related behaviour problems later in life. I believe that the increased numbers of puppies entering the population from highly dubious and cruel sources are at least a large part of the problem with the increasing number of dogs with anxiety disorders – including firework phobias.
Should fireworks be banned or restricted?
Rachel: I believe that fireworks should be restricted to organised events held on designated dates. An organised and consistent restriction would allow people to celebrate events accompanied by fireworks but also allow pet owners to plan and therefore help mitigate the negative effects on their pets.
Sian: There are alternatives to traditional fireworks such as laser shows and silent fireworks. I would like to see fireworks banned or at least their sale restricted.
Joe: It’s a tricky one, as I am never in favour of banning things outright. People who run fireworks displays could very well present the argument that having a pet is optional, and if you don’t want a scared puppy, don’t bring one to an area with fireworks. It is never a black and white argument.
However, I do think that something purely for human entertainment should not take precedent over the wellbeing of a living creature. Thus, I feel the use of fireworks should possibly be restricted to organised events with proper licensing. This will prevent neighbours setting off random fireworks in their back garden that you are unprepared for.
If the only fireworks displays are scheduled, you can prepare with your pet in advance, and there may be less nervous animals out there. As this constitutes a partial ban (which I am slightly uncomfortable with), perhaps fireworks could only be sold to private individuals around the traditional fireworks seasons of Bonfire Night and New Years? This again presents issues for other non-traditional holidays that like fireworks, or private events such as weddings. I really can’t think of an ideal situation that pleases both parties.
David: Like Joe, I don’t like the idea of banning things unless there’s a really good reason to do so. However, I would like to see a strong push away from traditional “banging” or “screaming” fireworks. I think there are quieter options now – maybe not silent, but much quieter. I also agree that the free-for-all with fireworks almost every night from October to January is a disaster for animal welfare. So perhaps there’s a compromise here? Ban the use of traditional fireworks except by licensed, formal events, well publicised to people in advance; but allow the quieter and smaller versions for private use? Although of course that would require strong government action…
Joe: And if I am honest, I think the government has bigger fish to fry right now, so will not be worrying about nervous pets on fireworks night. As such, the onus is unfortunately on pet owners to prepare for fireworks season, and help pets get through them as comfortably as possible. Our above advice should go some way to helping nervous pets, but please speak to your vet if you need further advice.
Over to you…
Last month, MPs debated the ban of fireworks in Parliament, responding to an online petition with over 275,000 signatures. While we’ve looked exclusively at animal welfare, the wider impact on people with PTSD and other health conditions as well as young children shouldn’t be ignored.
But if your pet is petrified of fireworks, do you think they should be banned, licensed or just enjoyed for what they are? Or maybe you organise displays, what do you think can be done to mitigate the impact – from early warnings (telling the neighbours) to quieter fireworks?
We’d appreciate all insights, from personal stories to opinions on either side of the debate. Please comment in the discussion area below.
You may also be interested in;