When a Festive Fourth Means a Panicked Pet: Helping Pets Cope With Fireworks

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, fireworks displays 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 their environment. Some of those people may be rambunctious children who have not been taught how to politely interact with pets. Perhaps some have had a few too many “adult beverages” and are behaving rather strangely.

Then just as darkness falls and your pet is settling down for the night, BAM! He gives an alert. He is told to stop barking. BAM! There is is again! And again! Then the smells hit him, awful smells of fire and smoke and burning chemicals. But the humans? They seem to think it’s some kind of entertainment! They’re explosions, people! The sky is falling, and the air is burning! Why are you acting as if this is fun, and why are you yelling at me for barking about it?!

Still wondering why your pet is afraid of fireworks?

It’s important to remember that our pets’ senses of hearing and smell are exponentially more sensitive than ours. What sounds like fireworks to us sounds like a blanket bombing campaign to them. Those barely discernible smells of smoke wreak havoc on their finely tuned sense of smell. A more sensible question might very well be “Why wouldn’t a pet 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 his night of terror. If your pet has a repertoire of obedience commands and tricks, run him through these drills when the fireworks start. The sense of mastery he gets from doing what he is asked 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, swim, play fetch - use fun activities to distract him from the chaos around him. These techniques worked so well with our older dog, Grendel, that she actually enjoys fireworks! She insists on going outside with us to see them and will watch for them from the windows long after we have gone inside.

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 is probably more the exception than 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 the kind of anxiety that can cause aggression.

The best that can be done for a dog like Zohan is to provide him with 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 spot, 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 Tibetan gongs. No, I’m not kidding. 

Try a Thundershirt

A Thundershirt (trademarked) is a tight fitting garment that uses gentle pressure to help your pet relax. It is similar to the swaddling techniques used to help children with cognitive disorders self soothe. 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, bully sticks, 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, or even attend a public display. This will not teach coping skills nor encourage your dog to “man up”. 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 to a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.

Keep your pets contained 

When choosing your safe space, make sure your pet is behind as many closed doors as possible. Insist that houseguests 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.

Consider medications, but don’t expect miracles

Years ago, veterinarians prescribed powerful tranquilizers to help pets cope with fireworks. Recent research, however, has shown that while these drugs are great at immobilizing the body, they do 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, the time to talk to your vet about this option is now. It is also important to note that all of these medications are labelled to be used 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

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Send him an email by clicking here.

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