How to help your pets feel safe throughout the firework season
By Julie Moss BSc. Hons, AdvCertVPhys, Dip.APhys.
This article largely relates to dogs, but a lot of information is applicable to any animal that is distressed by fireworks.
A fear response to something scary like loud firework noise is entirely natural and forms the basis of the innate fight or flight survival mechanism that animals, including us, possess. It is a vital reaction and enables us to avoid or negate dangerous situations. However, problems may arise when this response goes wrong and your pet becomes over-anxious or unnaturally fearful. The background to why this may occur is outlined here (Why animals get firework phobia). Some animals seem to enjoy fireworks or don’t even notice them. Others turn into quivering wrecks and it may seem impossible to help them. This blog discusses various ways of helping your pet cope if they have a problem.
The main things you need to provide for your pet are as much normality and routine as possible and a place where they feel safe.
Leaving them alone when they are likely to be fearful is not recommended, as your presence will help them to feel safer and you may need to ensure they don’t injure themselves in panic.
Try to keep everything as normal as possible by getting into a suitable routine ahead of the firework season. Avoid decorating or undertaking renovations in the home around this time as it may make the house feel unsafe for your pet if things are moved or missing.
It is best to start weeks in advance with any new routine to establish a habit of getting walks out of the way during the day. This means you don’t have to linger outside with your dog in the dark for long periods of time and will prevent them being over-exposed to fireworks. It is important to start early so your dog’s toileting routine can be adjusted. Then all that is needed in the evening is a quick wee in the yard and back in again once at teatime and again before bed. This can take time to get right and don’t forget to adjust the routine to accommodate the clocks going back at the end of October especially as firework season is just beginning around this time.
If you haven’t got a walking / toileting routine in place, it’s still important to try and walk before dark and allow your dog the chance to relieve him or herself.
Aim to get your dog tired and content during the day with low impact calm exercise to reduce stress levels later on, such as scent work and foraging activities. See Pickpocket Foragers. You can play games with your dog in the house when the fireworks are going off or do simple training exercises with them if they are can be motivated out of fear in this way. If they are too scared, then just allow them to hide and maybe sit with them if that helps.
For cats, it is also good practice to get into a routine where you keep them in between certain times every evening. Maybe they could stay in between 4pm and 11-30pm and go out later. Arrange their feeding times to coincide with this time and put meals in their den for them. As with dogs, you can make sure they get their access to outdoors throughout the day and play games with them in the evening.
Work out if there is a place in the house where your pet naturally runs to when they are afraid. If not, create one in a suitable place. It is better if you can make it away from windows and exterior walls (possibly on the landing or in the hall) as that is where animals tend to head for. Make a den using something like a dog crate and cover it with heavy sound-deadening fabrics and close the curtains in the room. Leave a radio on fairly loud to cover as much of the louder noises as possible.
Get in the habit of taking them to their den in the early evening and giving them something highly rewarding to do in there such as a stuffed Kong toy or a chew. Take them into the den the same time every night with their treat, even if they come back out again once they have finished it. It just means you have a routine in place and the den doesn’t become associated with fireworks and fear only. Save your tastiest treats to this time!
It is important to remain calm and happy for your dog. Close the curtains and turn on the TV and add a radio in another room in plenty of time to drown out the noise as much as you can.
You may have heard that you should not reassure your pet when they are scared because it reinforces their fear. This isn’t true – comforting can help them. However, there could something about the way in which you reassure them that may have an adverse effect. I will explain.
I used to see anxious people in the vet’s waiting room with their equally anxious pet. They would be stroking them rapidly with shaky hands and repeating over and over ‘It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok’. This is something many of us automatically say in this type of stressful or scary situation with the best of intentions, but the problem is that what follows is often not ok at all. The animal goes into the consulting room where they may have to have their temperature taken, joints checked, bloods taken or other scary procedures. They could very easily associate you saying ‘It’s ok’ with the idea that something traumatic is about to happen. The same thing can happen when fireworks go off.
So, I would think about the words you say and the things you do and ask yourself if they could have a negative association with something scary or traumatic. I lived with a dog who would look at me as if I tried to murder her if I said ‘Sorry’ for tripping over her or catching her tail or paw. Obviously at some point I had said sorry to her when something had really hurt her, and forever after she saw those words as meaning she had been hurt or was about to be.
Another nice thing to do is read to your dog. You can tell them a story as you would a child by reading it out in a happy voice, or you could tell the story to them using different voices. If you make it a funny story you are likely to laugh (you will probably laugh at yourself reading to your dog anyway!) and that means you don’t seem anxious or concerned, which will help them feel safer. You could also sing a silly song to them for the same reason. Or just talk to them about your day or something on TV. It really doesn’t matter as long as it helps them feel safer rather than worried.
So, what I’m saying is that it’s fine and in fact may be a good idea to reassure them, but make it constructive and useful. If your dog loves a cuddle and that calms them, then do that. If reading to them works, then do that. But watch your dog carefully and just see what their reaction is to your words and actions rather than just reacting with ‘It’s ok’. Remember we are trying to make things seem as normal as possible, not remind them of other stressful occasions.
Remember to keep calm and breathe normally throughout – this will help you to help them. TTouch body work (see below) can also help you to connect and reassure your pet without having to ‘emotionally’ stroke or fuss them. It’s great for helping you both to relax and stay calm.
Just in case!
Ensure your pet’s microchip contact details are up to date in case your pet runs off and gets lost. Also make sure they wear a tag on their collar just in case the worst happens. With cats, make sure it is a quick release collar so they don’t get caught up on something in panic.
Other ways to help your pet
Body wraps, T-shirts and Thundershirts
TTouch body wraps can be a good way of reducing anxiety in dogs and should be put on before the fireworks start to avoid association with fireworks and fear (you could do this as part of your routine as mentioned above). Body wraps should not be left on an unattended animal, should not be tight (just snug) and you should make sure they are still willing to walk around with it on as otherwise, if they are very still, they may actually be overwhelmed rather than calm due to the wrap being too much for them. I once saw a horrible video of a cat that couldn’t stand up wearing one because it was shut down and paralysed by the effects of the wrap and that is the last thing you want them to feel. Take time introducing the wrap to your dog and putting it on them.
Thundershirts can have a much stronger effect than body wraps so, as for the wrap, check carefully that your dog is not feeling immobilised by the effect. You can also use an ordinary t-shirt. Body wraps can be a good introduction to both t-shirts and Thundershirts.
Pheromone products are available from vets in the form of diffusers for dogs or cats. These should be put in place early (at least two weeks in advance) to give them time to take effect before the fireworks start and should be left running constantly. Sprays are also available and could be used in a wider variety of places, for example, in the den you have prepared. However, there is a strong alcohol smell when first used so apply it about 20 minutes or more before your dog goes in that area, by which time it will have worn off.
A behaviourist can advise you how to put a desensitisation programme in place for your pet. This must be done carefully and over time and shouldn’t be done close to or during the firework season. The ideal time is around spring and through summer when the risk of fireworks going off and ruining the good work achieved is not a problem. It enables your pet to first get used to the noise of fireworks in a neutral way and then to see them as a positive thing as the programme progresses. The only difficulty with this is accurately reproducing the noise and spatial effects on small speakers. Remember the actual noise is very thundery with some fireworks and this is felt through the floor and heard differently by your dog or cat. It’s hard to get that quality of sound and the effect of fireworks firing in all directions overhead.
Please be aware desensitisation has to be done carefully or the problem can be made much worse. Seek advice from a qualified behaviourist who ONLY uses positive reinforcement. They are the people to guide you through the best way to work with your dog.
Flower essences such as Rescue Remedy for general stress or Mimulus for fear are widely available from health shops or chemists. See Bach Flower and Bach Flower Pets. There are other flower essences available, for example, this blog gives details of Lotus Flower Essences which specifically help with firework fear and its aftermath.
Herbal remedies can also help calm your animal. See Herbal Vets for details of herbal vets and checkout the website of herb companies such as Dorwest Herbs. This link gives suggestions for useful herbs.
Essential oils can help. For example, Pet Remedy is a natural de-stress and calming formulation which mimics the body’s own natural calming mechanisms. It can be used in a spray, plug diffuser, atomiser or in calming wipes.
Zoopharmacognosy is a great way to find out which herbs or essential oils your dog prefers to help them feel safe – the animal selects the herb or essential oil itself.
Homeopathy is another effective way to help your animal feel differently about fireworks. If you visit a homeopathic vet, see BAHVS, they can help you find the right remedy combination for your animal. There are some commonly used remedies which can help, but having the ones your pet needs prescribed for you will be much more effective for the long term.
Body Talk is an easy to do hands on therapy which can help your dog to feel safer and less fearful. See our article here to helping animals to feel more relaxed.
Calming soundtracks such as the ‘Through a Dog’s Ear’ or ‘Through a Cat’s Ear’ series can be really effective to have on in the background. They are especially designed to have a calming influence on dogs and cats. Classic Radio has a playlist specifically designed to keep pets calm and happy.
Desensitisation soundtracks can help, but REMEMBER – don’t try this at the last minute. It is best done the following year from February onwards when your work won’t be derailed by a night of noisy fireworks setting you back when you least expect it or need it.
If all else fails, you could drive around with your dog until the fireworks have stopped.
I hope this has helped you understand your pet’s firework fears a little better and given you some great ideas as to how to help them.
Stay calm and stay safe!
Julie Moss BSc. Hons., AdvCertVPhys, Dip.APhys.
Julie is a canine behaviourist, veterinary physiotherapist and TTouch Practitioner. She started Best Behaviour in 2005, which has since become part of her new venture, Canine Mind and Body Balance. She has a special interest in integrative veterinary care, where CAM therapies play an important role in truly holistic animal care. Her passion is working with older animals to give them back the best quality of life possible and she is committed to education and enabling people to recognise early signs of lameness in our dogs.