Last year, stay-at-home orders caused many South Floridians to miss out on the usual Fourth of July festivities - including fireworks. For the many puppies and kittens who were added to our families during the worst of the crisis, this may be their first experience with fireworks. These experiences are often frightening, and sometimes traumatic.
Animal shelters across the country cite higher lost pet intakes on July 5th than on any other day of the year. For too many dogs and cats, the terror brought on by fireworks can cause them to bolt from their homes in a blind panic.
To better understand this common phobia, it helps to look at Fourth of July festivities from your pet’s point of view. If you’re hosting a party or barbecue, your pet is already dealing with the stress of unfamiliar people in his environment. Some of those people may be rambunctious children who have not been taught how to politely interact with pets.
Then just as darkness falls and your pet is settling down for the night, BAM! He gives an alert - and is promptly told to stop barking. BAM! There it is again! And again! Then the odors hit him, awful smells of fire and smoke and burning chemicals. The humans, however, seem to think it is all some kind of entertainment. There are explosions everywhere, the sky is falling, the air is burning, and the family dog is being scolded for showing concern.
Still wondering why your pet is afraid of fireworks?
It’s important to remember that our pets’ senses of hearing and smell are far more sensitive than ours. What sounds like a party to us sounds like a blanket bombing campaign to them. Those barely discernible smoke odors wreak havoc on an animal’s finely tuned sense of smell. A more sensible question might very well be “Why wouldn’t pets be afraid of fireworks?” But rather than grapple with rhetorical questions, let’s look at some ways to make the Fourth of July a little easier for our furry friends.
Get started now.
Every year, folks in our neighborhood try to outdo each other with impressive pyrotechnic displays. And every year, they start practicing early! If your neighborhood is anything like mine, you’ll have plenty of time to get your pet ready for the big night. If your pet learned a repertoire of obedience commands and tricks throughout his puppyhood, run him through these drills when the fireworks start. The sense of mastery he gets from completing these tasks can help him build confidence. It also allows him to see you in the role of a calm, yet confident leader.
If he doesn’t know any tricks, do whatever he thinks is fun. Play with squeaky toys, chase tennis balls, play fetch - use fun activities to distract him from the chaos around him as long as they are done indoors. These techniques worked so well with our recently deceased dog, Grendel, that she actually enjoyed fireworks! She insisted on going outside with us to see them, and would watch them from the windows long after we had gone inside. This year will mark our first fireworks event without her.
Provide a safe space.
As thrilled as we were with Grendel’s results, our other dog Zohan did not respond to these techniques. Every dog is different, and frankly, Grendel was probably the exception as opposed to the rule. Zohan is not quite as able to push past fear to focus on things that are interesting and fun. We had some success with a training CD that played sounds of fireworks.
While he became desensitized to the CD, he could easily tell the difference between the recording and the real deal. While these CDs are readily available, I would only recommend using them under the guidance of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. They can easily overwhelm a more sensitive dog, and lead to more severe forms of anxiety.
A dog like Zohan is more likely to benefit from a “safe space” where he can feel sheltered and safe from the chaos outdoors. If your dog is comfortable in a crate, this is a great option. Cover the crate with heavy blankets and towels to absorb the noise, and provide lots of bedding inside as well.
Your pet may pick his own safe space, such as a bathtub, shower stall, closet, or under a bed. This behavior is common in both dogs and cats, and both should be encouraged and rewarded. If you are using a crate, place it against a wall or in a corner in order to more thoroughly mute the sounds.
Provide alternative sounds.
If your pet is comforted by the sounds of a TV, radio or fan, include these sources of sound in his safe space. Zohan’s favorite is a recording of Tibetan gongs. Seriously.
Try a Thundershirt.
A Thundershirt is a tight fitting garment that uses gentle pressure to help your pet relax. It helps Zohan, and has helped many of my other patients as well. Thundershirts are also available for cats.
Place high-value treats and toys in the safe space.
Catnip toys, food puzzles, Kong toys stuffed with frozen baby food, safe chew toys - you name it. Give your pet something to focus on other than the possibility of the world coming to a noisy, fiery end.
Don’t force them to “deal with it”.
Some self-proclaimed professionals may recommend forcing your dog to be outdoors during a fireworks display. This will not teach coping skills, nor encourage your dog to be brave. This technique is called flooding and can cause profound psychological damage in an already fearful dog. If a trainer tells you to leave your fireworks-phobic dog penned or tethered outdoors on the Fourth, run. Never discipline, correct, or yell at your dog when he is exhibiting signs of fear. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.
Keep your pets contained.
When choosing a safe space, make sure your pet is behind as many closed doors as possible. Make sure houseguests do not attempt to retrieve your pet. A terrified animal will run for its life without considering the consequences. Remember, shelters all over the country report more pick-ups and lost pet reports on July 5th than on any other day of the year. Some report upticks of up to 240% - and that’s not counting the ones who are never reunited with their families.
Try synthetic pheromones.
Synthetic pheromones mimic the scent of a nursing mother cat or dog. This fosters the sense of safety and well-being young animals feel when they know their mothers are near. Synthetic pheromones are species specific - one is for dogs, the other is for cats.
The scent is undetectable to humans and other species, so both products can be used in the same households. Each product is available in the forms of collars, sprays and room diffusers. At Casa Kupkee, we use them all, and we swear by them.
Desensitization takes time - for both pets and their humans. Consider enrolling in an online noise aversion program recommended by veterinary behaviorists. These techniques work for thunderstorms as well as fireworks, but you’ll need to do the work in advance. It can also take time for the body to adjust to any “chemical courage” if your pet needs additional help. Which leads me to my next point.
Consider medications as a last resort.
Years ago, veterinarians prescribed powerful tranquilizers to help pets cope with fireworks. More recent research, however, has shown that while these drugs were great at immobilizing the body, they did nothing to address the pet’s underlying anxiety. The end results were pets who were not only terrified, but aware of the fact that their bodies were not able to move away from danger. The more modern approach is to treat these pets with anti-anxiety medications.
Since these drugs take time to take effect, and veterinary case loads are at an all time high, now is the time to make an appointment with your vet. It is also important to note that these medications are labelled for use in conjunction with behavioral training. There are no miracle pills or pharmaceutical lullabies. So give yourself time to - you guessed it - find a Certified Professional Dog Trainer!
Most importantly, be patient. Fireworks phobia is very common, and may even be somewhat normal. Early planning and reasonable expectations are the key to providing a happy holiday for everyone.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.