Tips for Pets with Fireworks Anxiety
Many of us spend the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July planning backyard barbecue parties and scouting out the best view for fireworks. But owners who have pets with firework anxiety spend their time worrying and planning how to help their pets cope with their anxiety. While people anticipate the sounds of fireworks and know they are not a threat, the loud noises take many pets by surprise. Pets who experience anxiety during fireworks not only suffer from the mental effects of anxiety but also are at risk of destructive behavior and even injuring themselves. A variety of treatment options are available. These include the following:
Medications: Appropriately selected medication can reduce anxiety in many pets and, depending on the option, do so quite quickly. This should only be pursued in consultation with a veterinarian. While your veterinarian may feel comfortable prescribing anxiety-reducing medication, others prefer to make referrals to veterinarians who specialize in behavior.
Pheromones: Commercially available pheromone products are species-specific and often intended to have a calming effect. For example, Adaptil, a synthetic analogue of a calming pheromone for dogs, can help calm dogs in a variety of situations, and it comes in various forms including diffusers, collars and sprays. Not all pets respond to a given pheromone, but many do and some quite dramatically.
Pressure wraps: Although not all animals respond to pressure wraps like the Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap, these soothing products may be effective for some pets. However, be cautious and monitor your pet for calmer behavior versus just holding still. Some animals will tense and not move because they are inhibited, and that lack of movement can be misinterpreted as calm behavior. Signs of calm include soft eyes, relaxed breathing and easy movement. Some pets may require desensitization and counterconditioning exercises to get accustomed to pressure wraps. This entails rewarding calm behavior while placing the wrap on. Slowly increase the time you leave the wrap on with each successive trial.
Supplements: Some pets may benefit from supplements. Supplements such as l-theanine have shown to be beneficial for pets with noise sensitivities like thunderstorms. Please contact your veterinarian to determine if supplements are appropriate for your pet. Many of these may need to be started ahead of expected fireworks events, potentially as many as four to six weeks in advance, but rarely have negative side effects.
Provide a safe space: It’s important to provide safe spots for pets during fireworks and ensure they have free access to these areas. Outdoor pets should come inside. Some pets seek spaces like closets or quiet, small rooms. An interior, first-floor room or closet may be more insulated to the sounds and light flashes of fireworks.
Noise: Some owners find a white noise machine beneficial to block subtle to moderate sounds, and others report that playing classical music calms their pets.
Cats: Cats get scared too! In one study on firework anxiety, cats hid and cowered while dogs exhibited more overt signs like pacing and panting.1 While it is difficult to miss a 90-pound Labrador jumping on the couch with you during fireworks, it is easy to miss a hiding cat. This does not mean cats are any less afraid than their canine counterparts. Instead, owners must be more vigilant for subtle signs of anxiety because anxious cats are equally in need of help and attention. The same techniques that apply to dogs apply to cats.
Behavior modification: Modifying a pet’s behavior through training can change the way it responds to the sound of fireworks. Most firework protocols involve a process called desensitization and counterconditioning. This is a methodical process in which your pet is exposed to recordings of fireworks sounds at low levels. Calm behavior is rewarded with high-value reinforcement like food. As a dog becomes comfortable with softer sounds of fireworks, you gradually increase the volume and continue to reward calm behavior. Other dogs may respond to classical conditioning techniques in which firework sounds are paired with positive reinforcements. Behavior modification programs for firework anxiety are not always easy to implement on your own. Many qualified trainers and behavior consultants can help tailor a protocol specifically for your pet. You may find appropriate help in a variety of locations including www.dacvb.org, www.avsabonline.org, www.ccpdt.org and www.corecaab.org.
Never use punishment: Under no circumstances should punishment be used in pets with firework anxiety. While punishment may limit the outward expression of behaviors, it does not treat the underlying cause and typically increases a pet’s anxiety long-term.
Identification: Each year, many pets escape their yards or houses during fireworks due to their anxiety. A microchip may be the best chance of reuniting pets with families. If your pet is not microchipped, please contact your veterinarian to discuss having a microchip implanted.
Unlike storms, many firework events are predictable. Planning ahead can greatly reduce your pet’s anxiety during fireworks. Our goals in treating firework anxiety are not only to reduce anxiety but also to provide an appropriate environment during fireworks and to modify your pet’s behavior through training.
1Dale AR, Walker JK Farnworth MJ et al. A survey of owners’ perceptions of fear of fireworks in a sample of dogs and cats in New Zealand. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 2010; 58(6): 286-291.
Dr. Florsheim was born and raised in Dallas. She graduated from Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine and owns Veterinary Behavior Solutions.