Fireworks, Thunderstorms, and Loud Noises!
BANG! WHEEEEEEE! POP! Fireworks are supposed to put us in a festive mood but for those of us with pets that suffer from noise phobias they can be anything but fun. With the 4th of July rapidly approaching, I thought that it would be an ideal time to talk about the fear some dogs experience during fireworks and/or noise events such as thunderstorms or windstorms. The feeling of helplessness that we feel when we see our pets go through this all too common condition can be extremely upsetting. I know this firsthand from a dog I had named Baby. Baby was a german shepherd mix who had severe thunderstorm and noise (fireworks/gunshots) anxiety. During crisis times Baby would exhibit all the signs of extreme fear. It would start with heavy panting and pacing, quickly adding whining and drooling. And while some dogs may hide or run-away when afraid, Baby chose to climb the nearest person she could find; scrambling into my arms and attempting to wrap herself around my head. Some dogs may even defecate/urinate in response to their fear. Talk about stress and anxiety! Baby’s reaction to her type of phobia was so stressful to me and my family we quickly came to hate and avoid all things to do with fireworks, gunshots and thunderstorms. I always hated seeing how frantic she got and the toll it took on her.
So what can we do to help our furkids? Each dog and family is different and therefore, your plan may need to be customized to include several of these options. Some mild cases will respond dramatically to one or just a few of these options and others may need medication assistance as well as environmental controls for relief and behavior modification. I can tell you from experience that patience and persistence are key to helping keep your frightened pet feeling safe from noise phobias so let’s begin!
Avoid Triggers: Noise phobic dogs should not be brought to firework displays in the hope that they’ll get used to it. In fact, doing so will probably intensify their fears. Situations with very predictable and defined fireworks events should be avoided at all costs. Remove the dog from the location during a firework event.
Manage Your Environment: If your dog prefers to hide, give him a safe place to hide. If your dog is crate trained, sometimes the crate is sufficient. Create a safe haven for your dog with your dog’s blanket, cushion and one or two familiar toys. Feed him there or leave tidbits in there frequently for him to find. Let your dog get used to this before the fireworks season (it can be a place that the dog is already accustomed to). Closets, bathrooms and small rooms in the middle of the house may work as well and make your pet feel more comfortable. Make sure to close all doors and windows to limit noise. Playing competing noise from the TV or radio or using white noise might be helpful in some cases. Make sure all blinds, shutters, and curtains are shut during a firework event.
Keep Calm and Don’t Scold: Try to stay relaxed, calm, quiet and in-control. If you become anxious your pet will become more anxious. Don’t punish your dog if she/he reacts to the sound of fireworks. This will only make them more anxious/reactive. It may also teach him that he was right to be worried in the first place. Remember these pets are in a fearful state and usually punishment or a negative response from you will increase their anxiety.
Exercise: A tired dog is a happy dog. This only works if you know when a noise event is going to happen, but it is very effective when trying to get your pet to relax. If you can get them tired and perhaps even distracted with a toy or dental chew they are more likely to stay distracted.
Pheromones: These products mimic the naturally occurring pheromones/hormones that are produced when a pet is feeling calm, happy and content…the goal is to “trick” their brain into feeling calm, happy and content rather than stressed and anxious. We sell these products for both cats and dogs in a variety of delivery systems (collars, sprays and plug in diffusers); you may also find them in pet stores and on line.
Resisting the Urge to Comfort Them: While it may help some dogs to hold them firmly and lean into them, only do this with dogs who approach you and if you think it will benefit them. Release them if they struggle. Additionally, for some dogs long firm massage strokes may also help. What you want to avoid is “rewarding” your dog for fearful behavior. Rewarding a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring more often, even when the individual dog is not conscious of being rewarded for it. Give rewards when your dog is behaving confidently, calmly, or happily. Work with your dog to develop ways to elicit these behaviors so that you can do so during storms and then reward.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning: In some cases behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counter conditioning to sounds from a CD will help with noise phobias. Basically, this is getting your dog used to the sound of fireworks from a CD at a volume that doesn’t provoke a full blown fearful or panic reaction and rewarding him for that. This is done gradually until your dog is no longer fearful to the sounds that used to frighten him. This must be done delicately to avoid making the situation worse and it is best to consult with your veterinarian before you embark on this path, so call the clinic and we will set up a consult for you and your dog.
Is it Time for Medication? For the pets in which training or controlling the environment is just not enough, medications may be necessary. There are a variety of anxiety reducing medications and sedatives to aid treatment and minimize your dog’s suffering, so call the clinic to make an appointment with one of our veterinarians to discuss this solution. Some medications may require baseline blood work to be done first so allow enough time for an exam and labwork to be performed if you want to use medications in combination with some of these other ideas.
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!