One Person’s Holiday is his/her Best Friend’s Living Nightmare
By Briana Bryson, Summer Intern
Fourth of July weekend. In the name of celebrating our independence, many of us enjoy using the holiday as an opportunity to socialize with loved ones, consume lots of booze, and blast millions of pounds’ worth of pyrotechnics (mostly) into the air. Because of that last, and particularly loud point, our pets are more likely to spend the patriotic holiday freaking out and cowering under the bed. If news of all the unfortunate alcohol-related incidents during the weekend of festivities isn’t sobering enough, consider this fact – July 5th is reported by animal shelters across the nation as being their busiest day of the year. If your dog or cat is one of the many who react adversely to fireworks and other incessant, loud noises (such as thunderstorms and babies’ cries), this probably comes as no surprise. During the 4th, the anxiety experienced by pets may become high enough to override their normal reasoning abilities, causing them to engage in behaviors they wouldn’t normally do – such as run away from home.
Why is my Dog Freaking Out?
Not every dog has an issue with fireworks, but that is no cause for alarm that you, as an owner, are doing something wrong if your dog reacts negatively. It is important to understand that animals love routine, and they dislike loud, inexplicable noises that are difficult to source. Each year only has room for one 4th of July, and as the holiday that enjoys the most abundant usage of fireworks, it might seem like some sort of Annual Armageddon to your dog. Her fear may be the result of a traumatic experience where they learned to associate the sound with something negative, or it could be the result of the amount of stress caused by prolonged exposure. Regardless of the reason behind the behavior or its commonality, the fact remains that as long as fireworks remain a problem for your dog, her safety, the integrity of your home, and the sanity of both parties will continue to be jeopardized each time the holiday comes around.
How to Help Your Canine
You can’t exactly explain what those terrible crackling noises are to your dog, but you can help her understand that they pose no threat to her well-being. Recognizing the symptoms of her so-called noise phobia can help you plan for pre-emptive measures on getting her through the fireworks show. Such signs include hiding, house soiling, barking, vomiting, shaking, pacing, and attempting to escape. Long before the fireworks begin to report, you should try taking your dog out – on a well-secured leash – and allow her to exercise, in order to reduce stress levels and make sure she’s less energetic later in the day. Once the fireworks begin, keep her inside at all times – scared dogs are particularly effective in getting past fences. Also, make sure there’s a “canine-certified” safe haven your dog can retreat to if she gets scared. Humans tend to have different opinions on the matter and want to resort to a crate, but if your dog retreats to the underside of your bed or your bathtub, then that’s the best place for her to be until she calms down.
These techniques may not strive to eliminate the problem completely, but they can help manage your dog’s symptoms.
• Attention-diversion is an excellent method if employed as soon as the anxious behavior begins. Keeping your dog busy with fun toys or long-lasting chew treats will help relegate the fireworks to a mere background noise.
• The use of calming pheromones can greatly reduce symptoms. These come in the form of mists and ointments that can be rubbed on your dog’s body, or diffusers that can be strategically placed in locations they feel secure.
• There are also several “anxiety vest” products available that you can fit onto your dog. These help reduce stress by making your dog feel secure and targeting certain pressure points.
• For particularly difficult cases, prescription anxiety medications are available that can be used for short-term stress relief.
Ideally, you would want to tackle the issue in a way that prevents it from recurring in the future. Fear is a deeply ingrained animal instinct that is difficult to “train” out, but in some dogs, behavior modification can accomplish just that by focusing on a particular stimuli – in this case, the sound of fireworks.
• The process relies on desensitization and, sometimes, counter-conditioning. Dogs are first introduced to noises, such as a recorded thunderstorm or rainforest, low enough so that they produce no anxiety, sometimes accompanied by a treat. The loudness is gradually increased while carefully ensuring that the dog is comfortable with the new noise level and isn’t forced to endure something unpleasant. This continues until fireworks themselves are tolerated.
• Companies have produced sound therapy CDs that simplify this process by guiding you and you dog through a series of recordings.
Cats have one of the widest hearing-ranges among mammals. While that doesn’t explain why, at times, their attention seems eerily focused on particular areas of all but featureless ceilings, it does help account for their sensitivity to fireworks. Many of the techniques used to help cats are similar to the ones outlined above that help dogs:
• Keep your cat indoors, and make sure he can’t get outdoors. Close all doors and windows, and block any cat-doors. In addition to preventing your cat from escaping, this helps filter some of the noise from outside.
• Make sure your cat has somewhere safe to hide if he gets scared. If your cat feels protected under, say, the dining chair you were hoping to use later, it’s best to let him have his way (once again) rather than forcing him out into a more convenient location. Treats can be used to encourage cats into a shelter, if they haven’t already picked one out.
• Keep your cat busy. Engage him in play, and provide an interesting new shelter for him to explore by building a “kitty tent” using chairs and blankets. This shelter can also double as a sanctuary for him to hide in if he gets scared. If he’s particular to catnip, give him a catnip-containing toy to mess with so he’ll be in a nice, drunken state throughout the night (much like many of the human celebrants).
• Desensitization therapy can also be used on cats! With much patience, you can work from short intervals of lowly-recorded fireworks to getting your cat to tolerate the real thing like a champ.
Other Things to Consider
Fourth of July weekend is supposed to be fun. You may feel tempted to travel elsewhere in order to enjoy the festivities, but keep in mind that it’s in your pet’s best interest that a familiar human’s nearby when they’re frightened. Pets, even ones with no history of freaking out during fireworks, should not be brought to shows. Murphy’s Law is particularly relentless when large numbers of people are involved. Also, it is important to note that a well-trained dog is a confident dog, and confidence can help your dog feel more secure in her environment and lead to faster, better results in attempts to address your dog’s fear. With all of that in mind, we wish you good luck and happy holidays!