Why Fireworks can be a real pain for pets
Looking forward to the fireworks?..not everyone does! Firework season heralds a stressful time for many of our family pets, and for many owners the pending celebrations are marred by the effect they will have on their dog or cat. The dazzling displays do nothing for our furry companions, but the loud bangs and whizzes can cause considerable distress.
A recent survey by the RSPCA suggested that almost a quarter of dogs in the UK have some anxiety triggered by firework noise, or by some other loud bangs, such as a car backfiring. This is not a minor nuisance: many pets become very, very stressed, and can take days to recover from the trauma. Some cry and scramble frantically for a safe place to hide. Some even defaecate and urinate in fright. The problem ranges from vague anxiety, right up to complete terror, signalling the onset of a true noise phobia.
In cases developing during adulthood, there may be a medical problem predisposing: perhaps a degree of senile change affecting the way a pet perceives noise? A veterinary examination is vital in these cases. For extreme cases your vet will often recommend speaking with a professional skilled in pet behaviour problems to try and develop a tailored desensitisation strategy, followed by essential counter-conditioning.
For all cases however, there are some commonsense things which can be done.
Prevention (too late for many of course!) centres on exposing all pups (especially those of a nervous disposition) to the full range of noises and bangs early in their development phase. There is evidence that if exposed before 20 weeks of age the pup will often accept the noise, without it acting as a so-called primary trigger for the noise phobia. Autumn-born pups suffer less: perhaps because they hear the noises in their early development phase? We suspect the same will apply for kittens, but I am not aware of any publications on this as yet.
There are some common-sense precautions which can assist for adult animals too:
- Providing a safe “hidey-hole” is often very effective. If a dog/cat can hide away in a safe “den” he/she will often calm down: a covered pen/box for a dog, or an enclosed bed high up, perhaps on a work surface or on a wardrobe, works well for nervous cats.
- Pulling the curtains at dusk and turning up a radio or television to help drown out the firework noise can be surprisingly effective.
- Take dogs for walks while it is still light and before the noise starts
- Try to ignore any fearful behaviour: if he/she gets too much attention from you when stressed, they may assume there really is something to worry about! Almost any response from you at this critical time can subconsciously reinforce the fearful behaviour!
- Do not punish fear-driven behaviour, it will make it worse!
- Consider the routine use of a pheromone plug-in (see therapy below).
- Consider microchipping all pets in case they are spooked enough to run away!
Desensitisation is a powerful behaviour technique, aimed at exposing the pet to the trigger for the anxiety in a very calm, measured, and non-threatening manner. Once accepted like this, the intensity/volume of the stimulus can be increased gradually allowing realisation that there is no danger. There are a number of noise-phobia CD’s available or they are available to download free from the Dogs Trust. Your vet may also prescribe a special type of anxiolytic drug (an amnesic) to assist in this phase. This takes patience and time! Start at least three months before the expected firework night. Severe cases require counter-conditioning at the end of treatment to reinforce the improvement.
Therapy is often necessary, if only as an emergency stop-gap. A relatively new product is now available which can help tremendously. This pheromone-based anxiolytic therapy is very effective, but cannot, by itself, completely eliminate the problem. It is an elegant solution based on a scent release by a bitch when she has pups, designed to calm and reassure the newborns. This chemical is odourless to humans, but calms adult dogs without any sedation. Talk to your vet about it: it can be used as a plug-in diffuser, an impregnated collar, or as a spray for maximum flexibility and intensity of treatment. It is a completely safe and side-effect free effective treatment. We recommend it to all, as a sole therapy for the mildly affected, or as part of a “rescue” protocol for the very stressed. There is a cat version also.
There are a number of medications your vet can prescribe for use at high risk periods. Prescribing practices are changing: some of the older sedatives are now believed to be contraindicated in managing these phobias. Talk it over with your vet. These drugs are not alternatives to behavioural modification or pheromone use, but can certainly help on occasions. We know there are also a number of herbal or homeopathic drugs, or food supplements on the market. As far as we are aware there is no peer-reviewed evidence for the efficacy of these products, and since we have evidence-based effective conventional drugs available I do not recommend them in the management or treatment of noise phobias.
One of the most successful medications we have found in last couple of years is called Nutracalm. This is a completely natural product and as such is very safe. We have found it very effective in many cases, when used appropriately and bearing in mind the standard advice above. Nutracalm is not a prescription medication and is safe to use with any other medication.