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Plan Ahead for Fireworks this year!

Many dogs and cats really do hate fireworks - they find the displays terrifying and will try to hide, run away, or even snap, scratch and bite if you go too close. This isn’t their fault, but that isn’t much comfort if they get injured or lost.

Informative image: fireworks

To make matters worse, there isn’t a single, one off, Fireworks Night any more. People start letting off fireworks at Halloween, and continue to do so through the weeks after Bonfire Night. In addition, many people have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve, as well as Christmas, weddings, birthdays, and any other occasion they can think of!

Do these animals have a phobia?

Yes, many do have a noise phobia, where the sounds of fireworks trigger an abnormally powerful fear response. Essentially, the difference between a phobia and a natural fear is that a phobia is an “all or nothing” response - the poor pet’s fear levels max out at the slightest hint of a firework display. 

That’s not to say that the others aren’t genuinely terrified, however - just because they are afraid and not phobic doesn’t mean that they aren’t genuinely suffering!

So, is there anything you can do to help them cope with this terrifying event?

Yes, of course! However, the most vital factor is to start early - if your dog or cat is unsettled, afraid, or abjectly terrified of fireworks, talk to us as early as possible about how to manage it.

There is a wide range of possible techniques - and although there’s not one that is a simple “cure”, they’re all potentially helpful, and put together can allow your pet (and you!) to relax during the fireworks season - and any other time when people inadvertently choose to terrorise their neighbour’s animals!

Several months in advance

Start sound desensitisation therapy. This is a technique to teach your pet that the scary noises aren’t actually dangerous. It works using a series of recorded firework sounds (available on a CD, as an mp3 download, or even on YouTube). These are then played at a very, very low volume and then gradually increased over weeks (or even months), allowing them to realise that the nasty noises are in fact harmless.

However, if your pet has a genuine noise phobia, they may struggle even at the very lowest volume settings - in that case, contact us and we’ll put you in touch with an expert dog or cat behaviourist who will be able to help.

A month before Fireworks season

Start using pheromones - these are synthetic chemical messengers that will reassure your pet, helping them to feel safe and secure. We recommend the use of Adaptil for dogs and Feliway for cats (there are other “aromatherapy” products on the market, but Adaptil and Feliway have been most extensively tested and as a result we KNOW that they really work!). However, for maximal effect, they need to be used for some weeks before the scary event.

Two weeks before

Consider using a casein-based calmer such as Zylkene - the active ingredient is milk protein. Although this over-the-counter product sounds innocuous, in the body it is metabolised into a “valium-like” molecule (a natural benzodiazepine) which encourages calm and reduces fear. However, it takes a couple of weeks to reach maximal levels, so consider starting two to three weeks in advance.

The week before

Prepare a safe den, nest, or hiding place for your pet. Both dogs and cats like to be able to hide away if they’re scared; and if they have somewhere they feel safe to hide in your house, they’re less likely to try and escape. This should be covered (which will also help keep the sound out) and packed with their favourite blankets (don’t wash them before use - the scent is important!). For cats, use an igloo bed or a cardboard box and place it wherever they like to hide when they’re scared - whether that’s under the spare bed or on top of your wardrobe!

Two or three days before

Come and see one of our vets to talk about medications. There are a number of very potent medicines that can be used to reduce your pet’s fear and anxiety without sedating them. We no longer recommend sedation for scared dogs or cats, because it leaves them still afraid, but unable to respond appropriately - which just makes them more afraid in the long run.

Nowadays, we use drugs such as diazepam or alprazolam which cause virtually no sedation in healthy adult animals, but are anxiolytic in that they reduce anxiety and stress. However, these drugs are not safe for long term use (cats and dogs rapidly develop a tolerance to the medication, meaning that you need higher and higher doses, which can lead to addiction). As a result, we’d use them on the night, but no more often than absolutely necessary!

On the night

Well, by now it’s too late for any preparation! However, there are still some things you can do. The bottom line is to keep them safe and don’t make matters worse. This means making sure that your cat or dog cannot escape from the house - keep doors, cat flaps and windows closed (even the small ones - it’s amazing how easily cats can escape through tiny gaps!). Close the curtains to minimise the sound (and any distracting light flashes), and make sure they know where their safe nests are. 

In addition, you need to be very careful how much fuss you give them - an excess of fuss (or stress) on your part may mean that your dog or cat (who is very sensitive to non-verbal communication!) thinks you’re scared as well. That will reinforce their fear, making it even worse. We’re not saying don’t stroke them occasionally (and bribery can be a useful distraction technique!) but don’t go overboard.

Using appropriate management techniques, along with judicious medication (when necessary) means that your pet can enjoy many calm and quiet fireworks seasons in the future!

If your dog or cat is afraid of fireworks, call us for advice as early as possible.