With winter fast approaching, a familiar dread settles over many of us who share our homes with our pets – firework season. 45% of dogs in the UK show signs of fear during fireworks. Whilst there is no quick fix, there are actions we can take to reduce this fear.
We are often asked if we can provide sedation for pets during firework nights. This is not something we support, as the risks are significant. Adverse effects of the medication could be as severe as death. Instead we encourage owners to work on desensitisation and preparation under the guidance of a behaviourist. Be careful when selecting a behaviourist, as the profession is unregulated. Check their qualifications and ask us if you are unsure.
Desensitisation aims to reduce emotional responsiveness to stimuli after repeated exposure to it. It takes time, but is the most effective way to reduce fear in your pet. In mild cases of fear, try the following – ask your smart speaker to play firework sounds. Begin playing them at a low volume. Gradually increase the volume – this may need to be a really gradual increase, over weeks or months even. Eventually, your pet should be so used to the sounds that they can even sleep with them on!
Begin a group in your local area where people can inform others of firework displays that will take place. Write them on your calendar, so you can be prepared, but of course be ready for unscheduled displays. Equally, make sure you inform your neighbours and people in your local area if you are planning on having a display yourself. The RSPCA recommends that people attend larger firework displays to reduce the number of smaller displays in the area.
On the day, be prepared. Keep cats inside, and walk your dog during daylight hours. Try to keep the walk relatively calm rather than lots of excitement and stimulation as this will increase levels of adrenaline in the body throughout the day. Instead, you could try to incorporate scent work which will mentally tire your dog but not increase stress and excitement levels, ensuring you have a relaxed dog in the evening.
When animals are frightened, the flight response kicks in with stress hormones taking over. Therefore, your dog may try to run to escape the noise. If you do need to let your dog outside for a toilet break, go with them in case they are frightened by any loud bangs. Make sure your garden is escape proof prior to firework season, with no small holes or weak structures.
Inside, create a safe space for your dog in an area they often choose to lie in. Create a covered area with a bed, blankets and soft furnishings where they can hide if they wish to. Create several cat safe areas by covering cardboard boxes with blankets over them for cats to hide in. Shut all windows and close curtains to muffle sounds. Blackout curtains are ideal as they block out bright flashes too. Interact with your pet using toys and treats if they are willing to, but give them their own space if they need it.
There is evidence that playing classical music reduces stress levels in dogs. Whatever your pet’s music taste, having some background music or TV can provide a distraction from firework bangs. Just ensure the tone is calming so as not to stimulate them instead!
Finally, some animals benefit from pheromone diffusers. Pheromones are chemicals which act like hormones but are produced outside of the body. When perceived by another member of the same species, they trigger a response in the receiving individual. There are therefore pheromone diffusers specific to canine and feline species. When plugged into a wall socket and switched on, the diffuser slowly releases a pheromone that induces relaxation and comfort in your pet. It does not affect humans and is odourless. We use them for our inpatients at Blackwater Vets and see great benefit from their use.
Don’t be disheartened if your pet still shows signs of fear after trialling these techniques. Desensitisation takes both time and guidance from a good behaviourist! Put in a little work everyday and trust the process. If your dog has an extreme phobia of fireworks or you are really worried, we are always here to help direct and advise you how to best help your pet.