It is that time of year again, with Christmas behind us and the New Year celebrations shortly upon us. A lot of dogs are really frightened by fireworks and hate this time of year, and it is unfair to just let them suffer. At the same time shovelling powerful tranquillizers into your dog is a pretty bad idea too, so what to do? The following is a common sense guide with helpful hints, but always consult your veterinarian if your dog is very scared and before administering any pills or potions to your dog.
When it comes to pets and fireworks, the “big bang” theory is no theory; fireworks are terrifying for many dogs. And why would not they be? We know and understand why the big bangs are happening, but our pets do not have that luxury, and the big bangs are no fun for them. It is actually adaptive for them to be fearful of these sudden loud blasts. And, aside from the sound, who knows what they may smell, because remember a dog's sense of smell far exceeds our own.
Dogs, like humans are hardwired to be afraid of sudden loud noises, it is a survival mechanism that keeps them safe. Some dogs, though, take that fear to the extreme with panting, howling, pacing, whining, hiding, trembling and even self-injury or escape. Unlike humans, they do not know that the fanfare and cacophony of noise on new years is not a threat. Dogs hear the fireworks and process it as if their world is under siege.
How a dog responds to noises may be influenced by breed, with German shepherd dogs more likely to pace, while border collies or Australian cattle dogs are more likely to show their fear by hiding. My English Springer Spaniel actually wants to go outside to mark all the birds that should be falling from the sky with all the gunfire. However she is an exception to the rule, but she is not allowed outside on her own and always on a leash.
Veterinarians do not know exactly why some dogs are afraid of fireworks and others not, many dogs that react to one noise often react to others. Therefore, early intervention and treatment are essential in protecting the welfare of these terrified dogs. Here is how you can protect your dog from fireworks and help keep your dog calm. What you do depends on just how afraid your pet happens to be. Always begin with a consultation with your veterinarian or a veterinary technician with behavioural training.
Visit The Vet
The first step is to take your pet to the veterinarian if your dog is afraid of fireworks, to have your veterinarian evaluate the dog, especially if your dog’s noise sensitivity is relatively new. One recent study found a link between pain and noise sensitivity in older dogs. This indicates that muscle tension or sudden movements in response to a loud noise may aggravate a tender area on the body. This then creates an association between the loud noise and pain, causing fear of that particular noise to develop or escalate.
If your pet’s terror level is high e.g. in the “red zone”, signs might include shaking, becoming self destructive, excessively salivating, incontinence, decreased appetite, and/or described as “inconsolable.” The most humane approach for these pets may be anti-anxiety medication.
Enlightened veterinarians today know what to prescribe and what not to prescribe. For example, a drug called acepromazine is no longer considered as good an idea as it was years ago, because it does not impact the dog’s seriously heightened anxiety level, it merely causes drowsiness. Similarly, Benadryl can make dogs sleepy, but the drug does nothing to alter brain chemistry. So, now what you have is a sleepy dog, but one that is no less terrified.
It is arguably inhumane to force drowsiness in a terrified pet. Imagine, you are frightened because you are in a room filled with spiders or snakes. To get over the fear, your doctor gives you a sedative. Now you are trying desperately not to fall asleep, and you remain terrorized.
True anti-anxiety medication affects brain chemistry to effectively lessen anxiety. If some drowsiness is associated, that is not necessary a bad thing, but this is different than merely causing a terrified pet to become sleepy. A specific medication that works for one dog may not be as effective for another, and some drugs require time to kick in. It is best to consult your veterinarian before new years eve to discuss the most appropriate remedy.
For many dogs, drugs may not be required because the anxiety level is not quite in the “red zone.” Instead, behaviour modification might do the trick, particularly if you supplement with some products listed below.
If you do find it necessary to use medication or any kind of calming product to calm your dog during the fireworks, introduce it at the right time, conditioning your dog to understand that the tool(s) are there to help them remain calm.
First bring your dog to a calm state; then introduce the tool before the fireworks and the anxiety begin. If the dog is already is experiencing high anxiety, then the dogs mental state will overrule the medication. If the dog is already breathing heavily, then a thunder shirt type product, designed to slow the breathing, will not work.
Expend some of your dog’s excess energy by giving plenty of exercise earlier in the day. This will help to tire the dog and induce natural sleep.
Keep your dog inside during the fireworks and go outside with the dog when it needs to potty. Make sure the dog is wearing a collar with an ID tag and keep the dog on a leash at all times. If possible take the dog outside to pee and pooh before the fireworks begin.
Never take your dog to a fireworks display.
Comfort Your Dog
When it comes to comforting your dog, the jury is still out. It is difficult, however, to reinforce an emotional response with comfort. Therefore, it is OK to pet your dog when frightened by a noise event so long as the dog appears to be comforted and not more distressed by the attention. If you are going to be at home with your dog during the fireworks, send calming verbal, physical and energy messages to help the dog relax. Your dog will look to you for clues on how to behave. If you do not make a big deal over fireworks or acknowledge them in any way, the dog will learn to be less concerned as well.
Create a safe haven in your home with a secure door or gate, preferably away from outside windows or doors. Close the blinds or curtains to reduce outside noises, and play some classical music to help reduce stress by creating a relaxing environment for your dog during the firework show. A radio or fan may also help to reduce anxiety, along with a pheromone like Adaptil sprayed on bedding, bandanna, collar or from a diffuser plugged into the wall. If you cannot arrange a safe haven away from the noise of the fireworks, then consider a friend or relative’s home or a dog day care centre with which your dog is already familiar. If you cannot take your dog to a place away from the fireworks, keep a travel cage at home for the dog to retreat to and feel safe. Also consider covering the crate if necessary. Never leave your dog outside alone. If you cannot be home, recruit a friend or hire a dog sitter to keep your dog company and take him/her out to relieve himself/herself every four hours.
Take your pet to the basement or the most secluded room in your home. Drown out fireworks noise with a box fan turned up on high or use some other kind of white noise distraction. Turn up the music sound level so the dog does not hear the fireworks. You can play classical music, or even specially produced music to help lessen the anxiety of worried dogs. Also, try to distract your dog with play. Do not worry, you are not rewarding your pet’s fear; instead you are readjusting from fearful mode into playful mode.
Play Firework Noise
Start by desensitizing and counter conditioning your dog to the sounds of fireworks. The idea is to play the sounds of those big bangs very softly as the pup or dog plays or eats, and ever so gradually turn up the volume and bring the game or the food dish closer to the speakers.
A copy of the naturally occurring and comforting pheromone released by mother dogs to reassure puppies. Adaptil is available as a plug-in diffuser, or infused in a dog collar to go wherever your dog goes to help make your pup or dog feel comfortable in his or her environment.
Noise cancelling headphones such as Mutt Muffs to muffle or deaden the firework sounds and further reduce noise sensitivities.
Ear plugs for dogs were originally created for gun dogs to help to mitigate the big bangs. Ear muffs for dogs are also available. Sometimes, convincing dogs to keep them on can be a challenge.
Food or Treats
Find a food or treat that your pet likes. This could be cut pieces of boiled chicken or squeeze cheese. Sit with your dog and feed him/her with each firework boom or bang. Occupy your dog with his/her favourite toys, particularly one you can fill with treats. You can also use a long lasting food dispensing or puzzle toy to release food continuously during the firework show. This is to help your dog make a positive association with the noises for the future.
Consider anxiety wraps, fabric wraps that exert a gentle pressure on your dog’s body to relieve stress. These may help to lower heart rate and other clinical signs of fear and anxiety, operating on the belief that they swaddle a scared animal and thus calm its fears. These work best, however, in conjunction with a complete treatment plan including medication or behaviour modification, or both. Your veterinarian will be able to give you further information and advice.
With its special lining, wrapping this around your dog may relieve nerves.
This is a vest that applies gentle, constant pressure, similar to swaddling an infant. The original product was created to lower anxiety, for dogs fearful of storms. It can be used for other events that cause fear or anxiety such as veterinary visits, car travel, crating, thunder and fireworks through its calming pressure, according to the company.
Designed to lessen the stress of car travel, works by reducing the visual stimuli of dogs, cutting vision by 50 to 60 percent, yet still enabling a dog to navigate while wearing it, the company states.
This helps calm dogs during common stress behaviours including restlessness, inability to relax, poor sleeping, jumpiness, irritability, destructive behaviours, excessive barking or whining, loss of appetite, obsessive-compulsive behaviours and inability to focus, according to the company. It can be given 24 hours following surgery, and the calming effect usually lasts two to three hours.
Anxiety & Stress Calming Support
This contains a blend of botanicals and ingredients to aid calming behaviour and address nervousness, anxiety or environmental stress due to traveling, boarding or separation, the company states. It may be used long-term.
A chewable nutritional supplement that includes stress busters like L-Theanine, magnolia officinalis, and phellodendron amurense. All big words, but safe, and really can work.
Sileo is a dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel. This is a new oromucosal gel formulation which when rubbed on the dog’s gums. It can have a calming effect specifically for noise-associated anxiety. It may cause some sedation depending on dosage, but, in this instance, that is not a bad thing. The product is only available through your veterinarian.
A Royal Canin prescription diet for cats and smaller dogs, Calm includes two amino acids that help pets maintain emotional balance: alpha-casozepine and L-tryptophan. Additionally, the formulas include nicotinamide, also known as Vitamin B3, which creates a calming effect within the central nervous system.
This has been formulated with oils to help promote relaxation, reduce agitation, improve mood and calm fears, and it is available as a spray, diffusion blend and wet wipes, according to the company. Canine Calm aromatherapy mist can be sprayed on clothing or bedding to help calm nervous dogs. It also can be sprayed on fingertips and gently massaged on the dog’s ear flaps. Diffusing Canine Calm in the home or business can help create a calm environment, the company states.
This nutritional supplement is derived from casein, a protein found in milk, and is used to promote relaxation and balanced behaviour in dogs and cats and helps them cope with challenging situations that can lead to unwanted behaviour and changes in mood or habits. It is safe for dogs and cats on a long-term basis, but is not recommended for pets that suffer from behaviour issues resulting in aggression, according to the company. Alpha-casozepine in Zylkene is believed to bind to GABA receptors, which increases the effect of this inhibitory neurotransmitter, thereby decreasing stress, the manufacturer states.
There are a wide variety of other “calming products,” from aromatherapy to other nutritional supplements. Most of these are without much basis in science, but can certainly work for individual pets. For some dogs, simply combining several of the products and methods listed above would work best.
If none of the above works, play a recording of a political party broadcast, it puts most humans into a trance or state of complete numbness, so it may have a similar effect on your dog.