We’re only a few weeks away from Fireworks season, and if you’ve got a pet who doesn’t cope well, now’s the time to get set up and ready! Fireworks fear, or noise phobias, are very common in dogs and cats (and can even be seen in other pets, such as rabbits and cage birds), and cause great distress and occasionally physical harm as well. However, there are a wide range of things you can do to help them manage and, in this blog, we’re going to look at some of the more effective options.
Why “fireworks season”?
Because while, in the past, fireworks were reserved for 5th November (blame Guy Fawkes and his merry band!), nowadays that has really crept. People usually start scheduling fireworks in last week of October, through to the middle of November. This year, Diwali falls on 7th November, so we can expect another peak then; we then might get a brief respite until Christmas, and then more at New Year, but the season will continue until Chinese New Year on 5th February. So it’s not just a single day – or even week – any more!
Why do animals find fireworks so frightening?
There are several reasons; the most important are the unexpectedness of it (fireworks displays aren’t regular enough for them to get used to them!); and the fact that most pets have much more sensitive hearing than us – so the sounds seem much louder than they do to us.
Finally, however, we need to remember that while we know what they are, to our pets they are inexplicable loud and scary noises!
What can be done?
There are a wide range of different approaches, which we’re going to briefly consider..
In the long term, this is the most effective approach. Essentially, the principle is that very, very quiet recordings of fireworks are played to the animal, so they get used to them. The volume is very gradually increased over weeks or, more often, months, as the pet learns that the noises are nothing to be afraid of. This can sometimes be combined with counterconditioning, by offering a treat or reward when the dog, cat or other pet is calm despite hearing the noise. In more severe cases, more sophisticated behavioural modification techniques may be needed, for which you will need a trained and qualified canine behaviourist.
The trouble is that these approaches are long-term solutions – it’s not something that you can just do a few weeks before the fireworks season begins!
It’s really important to make sure that your pets have somewhere safe to hide away once fireworks start – a refuge where it’s dark and quiet. For cats this may need to be at a height, whereas dogs prefer to hide under things. For cage birds, a cover may help to reduce the noise intensity and the visible light.
It’s also important to make sure that your premises are secure – terrified animals will often try to escape, and may injure themselves jumping from windows or running into roads.
We now have access to some very effective natural calmers for dogs and cats, based on their own natural communication systems. Pheromones are chemical messengers that many animals use to communicate, and we can replicate these substances to help our pets stay calm and relaxed. In dogs, we use a product called Adaptil, which contains Dog Appeasing Pheromone – the scent a bitch uses to persuade her puppies that they are safe and secure. In cats, Feliway contains Feline Facial Pheromone, a scent that cats use to mark their territory – as being in the centre of their territory makes cats feel safer, it has a similar effect. These are both available as sprays or diffusers, and Adaptil comes as a collar as well. They do need starting at least 3-4 weeks before the stressful event for best results though.
Another natural product, Nutracalm contains synthetic versions of a number of nutrients believed to promote calmness by reinforcing the “calming” circuitry in the brain. These substances include L-Tryptophan, GABA, and extracts of a plant called Passiflora incarnata which is thought to promote relaxation.
This is reported to work really rapidly, in as little as half an hour, so can be used immediately before the display.
Some pets are, however, so badly stressed and so afraid that the normal methods above aren’t sufficient. For these patients, our vets can prescribe certain specific medications to reduce anxiety and stress without simply collapsing the dog, leaving them still afraid, as some older drugs can do.