Fireworks and pets don't mix

At this time of year everyone enjoys their local fireworks displays. Unfortunately for a lot of our pets and clients it is a miserable time of year. Many dogs are frightened of loud noises, particularly if they have not been exposed to a wide range of noises when young. It is very important that as a puppy they should be exposed to loud noises with positive experiences. The smell of fireworks can also be unnerving. People are very good at unwittingly reinforcing nervous and fearful responses by comforting or reassuring their dog. Unlike children who respond to comfort, dogs see comfort as a queue that they are doing the right thing. This means the problem gets worse instead of better!

Dogs will often find a place to hide where they feel safe and secure. This is perfectly normal, it comes from their instinct to make a den. Often this is an enclosed space such as behind the TV, under the stairs or in a corner of a room. In an enclosed space objects will absorb and concentrate sound waves, this will help the dog be able to locate the source of the sound which helps it cope with its fear. There are lots of signs of fear such as:

  • Shaking and trembling
  • Excessive salivation
  • Barking or howling
  • Escape attempts
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of toilet control

The excessive pacing and escape attempts are often an attempt for the dog to locate a frightening or unusual sound.

New firework legislation has come into force stating:

  • No one under the age of 18 can possess fireworks in a public place
  • None are to be let off between the hours of 11pm and 7am except on New Year, Bonfire night and other religious festivals
  • New restrictions on the maximum permitted noise levels, prohibiting the public sale of fireworks whose decibel level exceeds 120

These are all a step in the right direction but obviously do not solve the problem for terrified animals. There are various methods of dealing with noise phobias. Some pets do become so stressed that they have to be sedated to prevent them escaping or hurting themselves. It removes the actions such as pacing, trembling and escape attempts that people find distressing. This however is not the answer routinely as a lot of these drugs allow the animal to still hear the sound. It is therefore still fearful of the noise but is physically unable to react to it!

The best method to solve the problem is by using the behavioural route. No matter how difficult it is the animals’ behaviour must be ignored, as by comforting the animal you will make it think it is doing the right thing! For dogs there is a hormone diffuser. This is a simple plug-in device which releases a chemical similar to that produced by the bitch to reassure her puppies. It needs to be used at least a week before the fireworks are due to start.

There are also certain natural products available in drop or powder forms which can calm some animals.

There are cds available with the sound of fireworks on. They are used to help the animal overcome their fear by playing the cd at a low volume but just loud enough to cause the animal to become anxious. Whilst this is happening it is important to completely ignore the animal’s actions. This teaches the animal that there is no reward i.e. interaction from you so it will stop the behaviour. The cd volume is then gradually increased until the animal no longer thinks anything of loud bangs, etc. We can always point you in the direction of a good animal behaviourist if you are still struggling.

Whenever fireworks are going off:

1. Keep the pet indoors.

2. Close the curtains to block out the light and help absorb the sound.

3. Turn the radio and TV on loudly.

4. Allow the animal to have a quiet, safe, secure place. If the animal finds somewhere to hide, let it stay there. If possible try to encourage them to hide as near to the centre of the house as possible, to muffle the sounds more.

5. Allow dogs to relieve themselves before the fireworks start.

6. Do not allow dogs near fireworks on the ground as they may try and investigate the smell.

7. Stay calm yourself as animals will sense when their owners are worried and this increases their stress.

8. Don’t get angry. Their behaviour maybe annoying but it is happening because they are scared and getting cross will only make it worse.

Small animals living outside should not be forgotten. They can also become stressed from loud noise. Bring small animals indoors or into an outhouse or garden shed to give them extra protection. Horses can often bolt from firework noise and become injured. Make sure horses, ponies and donkeys are stabled while fireworks are being let off. If fireworks are in view close the stable door. Don’t forget bonfires can be dangerous to wildlife. Build them as late as possible to reduce this risk and make sure you disturb the foundations of the bonfire to give any wildlife a chance to escape.