As we all know, fireworks make distinctive noises. Many humans find the constant bangs and whistles around bonfire night unsettling, so imagine what that must be like if you had the sensitive hearing of a dog, and nobody could explain to you what was going on. Throw in some flashing lights and memories of feeling frightened last time you heard those noises, and it becomes easy to understand why animals can be frightened by fireworks, and why they become increasingly anxious as the bonfire season progresses.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to explain to a pet that the fireworks are just noisy and that they are, in fact, totally harmless. What we can do is allow the animal to become accustomed to the type of sounds associated with fireworks, and to allow them to learn through experience that no harm will come to them and that there is nothing to fear.
One of the most fascinating and revolutionary developments in the fight against stress and phobias experienced by pets is the identification and use of pheromone therapy. Pheromones are natural chemical messengers, used in the animal kingdom, to communicate between members of the same species. For example, an individual may release warning pheromones, or sexual pheromones, which will affect the behaviour of other individuals.
Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is a synthetic version of the natural appeasing pheromones released by the lactating bitch soon after giving birth. These pheromones help prevent or stop fear and stress related signs in puppies. They convey a message of well being and a feeling of security
DAP is a synthetic appeasing pheromone solution that is delivered through a plug-in vaporiser directly to the dog’s environment on a continuous basis. Each bottle lasts approximately one month. Refills are available. It is natural, safe, and simple to use. Its use helps the dog to feel less anxious, even in the presence of a stimulus as potentially frightening as fireworks. While it is not a stand alone cure, when used as part of a therapy programme, it can bring the dog’s anxiety level down to a workable level.
We all want to comfort our pet when frightened "there’s a good boy, everything will be okay". What you are actually telling your pet is that it is okay to be frightened! A different approach is required. Owners can help to diffuse the situation by demonstrating an indifference or even positive response to the noises themselves. Here are some Dos and Don’ts.
• Don’t punish a dog when it is scared, as this only confirms that there was something to be afraid of.
• Don’t fuss over or try to reassure a dog when it is scared as this rewards the behaviour. If the owner is jolly, his/her behaviour will help to counteract the fear in their pet.
• Ignore any fearful behaviour that occurs for no good reason.
• Feed dogs a good protein rich meal mid to late afternoon and plenty of carbohydrate a little later (ie rice, pasta). Don’t try this if the dog is prone to diarrhoea when it is scared or at other times. If necessary, don’t feed it at any other time in the day, to ensure a good appetite. This food combination may make the animal calmer.
• Make sure dogs are kept in a safe and secure environment at all times so that they don’t bolt and escape if a sudden noise occurs. The use of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) will help to provide an emotionally secure environment.
• Provide animals with a safe and secure retreat as this will help them cope and reduce the intensity of the fear response. When the season begins, it may help to black out one of the quietest rooms in the house; placing toys in the room for the animal to play with and, preferably, things for the owner to do as well, will help to ensure the room is associated with positive experiences. Some animals appreciate the opportunity to withdraw and the provision of a retreat such as a cupboard under the stairs may help them to cope. Duvets and blankets not only make the area comfortable, but can also help to sound proof the area. Blacking out the room potentially removes the additional problems of flashing lights for dogs that fear fireworks or thunderstorms, for example.
• Put some music on. If the dog (and the owner!) can tolerate it; something with repetitive drumbeats is best. This does not have to be very loud as long as there is a constant distracting beat to the music.
• Ignore the noises and try to engage the animal in some form of active game.
• If the dog gets on with another dog that is not scared of noises, keeping the two animals together may help. Playing with a non fearful dog may help to persuade the fearful dog that things are not so bad after all.
• Earplugs can be made by dampening a piece of cotton wool and squeezing out any excess water. The cotton wool is then rolled into a long thin cylinder and twisted into the dog’s ear so as to pack the canal. Care must be taken to ensure that the cylinder is not so thin that it goes too deep into the ear canal or too thick that it cannot be secured appropriately. The plug should be secure and firm, but not so tight that it irritates the dog. Remember to remove it as soon as the event has passed and don’t reuse earplugs from one day to the next. A support stocking over the ears may help to hold the earplugs in place.
• Don’t ignore the problem just because it may only happen once or twice a year. Instigate a desensitisation programme once the season is over and control over the environment can be regained. This takes time, but will make the animal much happier than the above measures which are simply aimed at helping owners to cope at a particular time.
• Drugs may be useful in some cases, but should only be used under veterinary supervision. If using any such remedies, they should be given so they take effect before noise starts or panic sets in.
• Drug use is complementary to this advice and not a substitute for it.
In the longer term, dogs afraid of fireworks need their fear eased. A desensitising programme aims to help your pet learn to cope with fireworks by gradually desensitising them to noises associated with fireworks. A CD based training programme is used. Recorded sounds of fireworks are played initially at a low level that does not cause a fear response. The sounds are played regularly, gradually over a period of weeks or months increasing the sound intensity. These programmes are over 90% effective but take time and patience.
Desensitisation programmes and CD products are available through The Vet Centre.
Please contact us for more information or if you would like to make an appointment to see one of our vets.
More information about these products is available from the following web sites:
1. Fear of Fireworks—www.fearoffireworks.com
2. Sounds Scary—www.soundscary.com