Coping with Fireworks Season
Fireworks are no longer just a “one-off” on bonfire night – we see displays all through the autumn and early winter, from Halloween to Guy Fawkes to Christmas to New Year, we can expect a couple of months of intermittent whizz-bangs. However, while that might be great for us, for many of our pets those flashes and bangs are incredibly stressful. A 2014 RSPCA survey found that 49% of dogs in the UK showed some degree of noise fear – and that fear will only be exacerbated by unexpected loud noises from the sky. So in this blog, we’re going to take a quick look at what can be done to help our pets – and especially our dogs – cope with the “nasty noises” and have a calm and relaxed Fireworks Season.
How do we know which animals are affected?
Some animals with a noise-fear will show clear characteristic signs of fear or anxiety (e.g. running, hiding, vocalising, even urinating and defecating). However, these are typically only displayed by the most afraid, and a wide range of other animals may also be afraid, but displaying it less openly – being more clingy, for example, or showing unusual behaviour towards inanimate objects (e.g. destruction in dogs or spraying in cats), or showing subtly altered body language.
If in any doubt, we would recommend a Sound Sensitivity Questionnaire, which we can use to give your pet a score for fearfulness. Give us a ring for more information!
What can we do?
If your pet is at all afraid of loud noises, there are a range of different approaches. We can group these into “long term” (over months), “short term” (things to do on the night of the firework display) and “emergency management” (short-term medications that our vets can prescribe in the more severe cases).
Long Term Approaches
Unfortunately, it’s probably a bit too late to start these for this year, as these behavioural approaches usually take several months to “kick in”. However, they are the most effective approaches and so it’s worth considering them for next year, once this season has died down.
The most effective method is called desensitisation and counter-conditioning. This is a behavioural technique that gradually teaches dogs (usually, although it can be used in cats too) that the nasty noises are nothing to be afraid of. The benefits of a desensitisation programme may last for a year or more, although it usually takes at least 8 weeks for significant improvement (the more fearful the dog, the longer it takes). Using this approach alongside Adaptil (see below) seems to make it more effective.
The basic principle is to play recordings of scary noises (e.g. from the Sounds Scary resources!) very, very quietly.
To desensitise, start with a calm dog, the sound should be set to be be low enough for the dog to hear but not react. The volume can be gradually increased from zero to “ear twitch” intensity. At this point, play it for 10-15 minutes, several times a day for 2-3 days until no reaction. Then repeat with slightly increased volume each time until playing loudly – expect this to take a while! Remember, don’t ramp it up too fast – one scary experience can set back the whole programme.
Counter-conditioning works alongside this, by training the pet to react to previously scary sounds with pleasure – a reward e.g. a treat. It is more resistant to set-backs than desensitisation alone, but the dog needs to be trained in 3 or more places (otherwise they may come to associate the specific place with the reward, not the scary noises!).
Start again at low volume sound, but then get out a favourite toy or treat (in our experience, snuffle mats are great for this!). Then it’s up to you – be really excited for the time the sound is playing! Repeat several times a day for 2-3 days until dog is anticipating play, and then repeat with slightly increased volume each time until playing loudly.
Unfortunately, in the most afraid pets, this may not be sufficient on its own. If your pet is very, very frightened, then we would advise talking to one of our vets about using long-term medication alongside the training programme, to help give your dog “head space” in which they can learn, without going into a blind panic.
Short Term Management
The key here is to prepare in advance so you’re not playing “catch up”! The management approaches boil down to providing a safe place to hide away, and neither punishing nor rewarding fearful behavior.
Provide a safe den to hide in – for cats, this should be up high; for dogs and cats, try to put something that smells familiar and safe inside to reassure them. Make it up well in advance of firework night. Train your dog to use it and like it in advance.
Walk dogs early in the day, before any displays occur, so they can empty their bladder and get a bit tired before the scary stuff starts
Feed a big stodgy meal bulked out with pasta early in the evening – the carbohydrates will help encourage them to sleep!
Make sure your dog is safe inside – with nothing they could hurt themselves on, and no open windows or doors they could escape through if they panic. Closing windows and curtains can also help muffle the noises from outside, and turning on the TV or radio can also help.
Use Adaptil (for dogs) or Feliway (for cats), especially around the safe den or hide; this needs to be started at least 2 weeks in advance for the maximal effect.
Keep positive and happy!
Consider using calmers such as casein-based tablets or tryptophan products; they may help some pets
- Punish a fearful pet – it’ll just make matters worse.
- Reward fearful behaviours – remember, this doesn’t mean you can’t stroke them at all but don’t give treats or other rewards unless they’re (relatively) calm and quiet. Unlike children, dogs and cats don’t learn this way.
- Force your pet to confront their fears by cutting off hiding places or dragging them outside – again, it will only make their fear worse. Unlike people, dogs and cats lack the cognitive resources needed to “learn that it’s harmless” in this situation.
For dogs and cats who are truly terrified, there are medications that our vets can prescribe. These usually work best if given about 30 minutes in advance. Unlike older sedatives, which often made the fear worse in the long term, the modern drugs reduce anxiety as well as providing some sedation, and may help reduce long term memory of the scary stimulus. However, these need careful use as they can cause wobbliness and cause problems in aggressive animals; they are also highly addictive and should only be used for a short period!
Do you need help with a fearful pet? Then give us a ring! Our vets will be able to help walk you through any stage or management for a scared pet, right up until the fireworks are starting!