As we approach the end of the year, celebrations such as Bonfire Night and New Year’s Eve appear on the horizon. For many people, they provide a great excuse to crack out the fireworks, but often our pets feel differently. Noise phobias are incredibly common and require a multi-faceted approach to tackle. One of the most popular options is Adaptil; a scent-based product available as a plug-in diffuser, a collar or a spray. But is such a simple approach really effective against a such a complex problem?

What is the problem?

It is estimated that between 25% and 45% of all dogs will show signs of fear when faced with fireworks. This is because the loud noise and unpredictability can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response. But it doesn’t mean that all scared dogs will simply run and hide. More subtle signs of fear can include

  • lip licking
  • yawning
  • panting
  • trembling
  • pacing
  • drooling
  • freezing

How to help

There are two key aspects to tackling firework phobias in dogs. Finding the right combination of techniques to suit the individual dog and acting soon enough to make a difference. The gold standard, if it works, is behavioural modification, often by working with a behaviourist to try to tackle the problem at its source and help the dog to understand there is nothing to be fearful of. However, for whatever reason, this may not be possible for everyone. So we need to turn to ‘off the shelf’ methods. 

Different methods:

  • Desensitisation – there are various ways to do this and it’s worth speaking to your vet for guidance. It basically involves exposing the dog to low volume sounds initially. Then gradually increasing the volume over a number of weeks with the aim of rewarding a lack of fear response. This is most commonly achieved by using a special CD or audio download
  • Nutraceuticals – these are natural products that are often based on traditional substances such as valerian, milk protein or milk thistle. There are few studies to prove their efficacy but similarly, they are unlikely to do any harm
  • Sedatives – sedatives are usually used in severe cases or as a last resort where other methods have failed. They can be highly effective and will act quickly but may come with side effects. 
  • Pheromones – pheromones are substances that are released by an individual with the aim of influencing the behaviour of other individuals. The important one here is ‘dog appeasing pheromone’ which is released by lactating bitches to help calm the puppies. But interestingly, can also have calming effects on other adult dogs too. This is used as the basis for Adaptil. 

All of these, except the sedatives, will often take days to weeks to have an effect. So this is something that needs to be thought about well in advance. 

What can I do on the night?

If, despite all preparations, your dog is still anxious when fireworks are around, there are a few things you can do to help.

  • Walk them earlier in the evening, before it gets dark.
  • Provide a safe space for them to go to. Maybe under a table or in a crate if that’s what they’re used to.
  • Keep a radio or television playing to help mask the noise.
  • Keep curtains closed to help block out the flashes.
  • Reassure your dog but don’t mollycoddle them. They can pick up on changes in your behaviour which may make them more anxious. 

So does Adaptil actually work?

Potentially, yes, though the evidence is still rather hit and miss.

  • When trialled in laboratory beagles exposed to the noise of thunder, the use of Adaptil was shown to decrease active signs of fear such as running, digging or jumping. But had no effect on passive signs of fear such as trembling, cowering or lip-licking. 
  • In a study from 2003, the majority of owners reported improvements in their dog’s anxiety levels during firework displays when they were exposed to an Adaptil plug-in diffuser. However, it is worth noting the owners had also been issued with behavioural advice and techniques to implement. So it is impossible to determine which had the most effect. 
  • A more recent study from 2020 used an online owner questionnaire to determine the response to a number of products or techniques aimed at reducing fear and anxiety around fireworks. With this study, pheromone therapy was grouped in with other nutraceuticals and calming products so it’s specific effect cannot be determined. However the group as a whole did not perform any better than what would be expected from a placebo. 

As with many of the products targeted at alleviating undesirable behaviours, what seems to work for one dog, may not work for another 

Each dog’s individual response can vary greatly. This is another reason why planning in advance can be highly beneficial as it can allow plenty of time for trial and error. Some owners feel Adaptil works wonders; others don’t notice any difference. What has been shown from the various trials, is that a reduction in the fear response is much more likely to be obtained when using products or techniques in conjunction with each other, with the most successful combination being long term desensitisation alongside Adaptil or other nutraceuticals and ‘in the moment’ behavioural assistance. 

Adaptil certainly has a part to play in improving many fear-related scenarios but is best seen as one piece of a jigsaw rather than the definitive solution. It’s ease of use and variety of forms makes it appealing to dog owners and it is definitely worth considering as part of a management strategy.

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