Many pets are petrified of fireworks. And no wonder: no one tells our best friends that these incredibly loud and sudden and unexplained bangs are supposed to be a celebration, not an attack.
For dogs and cats, becoming startled at sudden loud sounds can be a protective response. Who knows what could be making that noise! And canine and feline hearing is far more sensitive than our own. No wonder the bangs, booms, pops, and buzzes of fireworks can be downright scary to pets.
Dogs tend to be more obviously affected by fireworks, but plenty of cats head under the bed when the blasts begin. Dogs shudder and shake, cover their ears, and refuse to go potty outside, and cats in hiding may avoid their litter boxes.
Fortunately, you can take steps to make a considerable difference in their experience of Independence Day or other times that fireworks fly. That may be especially important this year, when fireworks sales are up, potentially making 2020’s Fourth of July celebrations an even bigger nightmare for pets.
If you start now, a training method referred to as desensitization and counterconditioning may help. And even if you don’t start soon enough for the coming celebrations, it may be helpful for New Year’s Eve or next year’s Fourth.
Use sounds of fireworks, such as this YouTube video or any audio of fireworks.
Begin by playing the sounds at a very low level, all while distracting the dog (or cat) with play or by offering high-value food or treats placed inside a toy. At first, the pet is far from the speakers, but ever so gradually move the pet closer and simultaneously pump up the volume.
If the pet becomes concerned, you’ve gone too far too fast. Move the pet farther from the speakers or lower the volume..
The idea is twofold: First to help the pet feel more comfortable with the sounds of fireworks. And second to associate that once fearsome sound with something enjoyable, such as a special treat or a favorite toy.
This method helps many dogs, although not all dogs, and it can take time. Be patient.
Pheromones, Nutraceuticals, Probiotics, CBD
If you know from previous experience that your dog is going to be anxious, ask your veterinarian about using some combination of the following products:
For dogs, plug in an Adaptil diffuser, and for cats, a Feliway Classic diffuser. Each is a copy (analog) of naturally occurring pheromones to help each species to feel more comfortable in their own environments. Plug in those pheromone products now; don’t wait until the actual holiday. They can help to facilitate the desensitization and counterconditioning training described above.
Any product or drug can be used in conjunction with pheromone therapy. Here are three nutraceuticals that are non-sedating but can help pets to relax:
Zylkene: As their website says, helps pets to find their “zen.” Zylkene contains bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, an ingredient that has been shown to have calming properties. Like great-granny used to say, “If you’re upset, drink a glass of warm milk.” Great-granny was right.
Solliquin: L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in green tea, stimulates production of alpha brain waves, supporting relaxation and mental awareness.
Zentrol: A formulation for natural stress management that has been shown to help reduce stress-related behaviors in as little as 60 minutes. The tablets contain novel natural ingredients such as Souroubea spp, containing betulinic acid, and Platanus spp.
Calming Care is a probiotic from Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diets, which can be sprinkled on the dog’s food. A six-week supply of supplements contains a strain of beneficial bacteria known as BL999 that has been shown to help keep dogs calm during stressful situations such as separation. While available at Chewy.com and elsewhere online, ask your veterinarian before purchasing.
CBD: Anecdotal reports suggest that CBD for pets may help to relieve anxiety. Well, maybe. There’s no published science regarding this – at least not yet. Also, not all CBD products are the same. Talk to your veterinarian.
A newer product that affects brain chemistry is called Calmer Canine. Created for dogs with separation anxiety, this device also helps dogs with anxiety regarding thunderstorms or car rides.
The Calmer Canine fits like a halo above the dog’s head. The amygdala, the fight or flight center, is the area in the brain responsible for producing fear and emotional responses. An anxious brain is out of balance, not only hormonally, but also with overactive brain cells that produce harmful substances causing inflammation. Calmer Canine works by providing targeted pulsed electromagnetic field signals. These signals are invisible, sensation-free, and have no known adverse reactions.
If your pet’s terror level is high, with signs that include shaking, excessive salivation, incontinence, decreased appetite, or seeming “inconsolable,” contact your veterinarian and ask about SILEO (dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel). This oromucosal gel (which means it is applied to the pet’s gums) is targeted for noisy times such as fireworks or thunderstorms. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour for SILEO to take full effect, and effects typically last two to three hours.
While SILEO is effective in most dogs and safe, it is still a drug (and is not labeled for cats). Speak with your veterinarian before using.
Your veterinarian may also suggest other psychopharmaceutical options that aren’t mentioned here.
Easy to Implement and Worth a Try
For some dogs, what might work is to combine several products, such as pheromones with nutritional supplements – as well as old-fashioned “jollying.” Take your pet to the basement, an office, or the most secluded room in your home.
The “jollying” part is about distracting your dog with play and treats. If your children routinely have fun with puppy, fireworks displays are a great time for games. Giving high-value treats in Kong toys or food puzzles can be an effective distraction as well.
Of course, close the windows (to lessen the sounds) and pull down the shades. Turn on relaxing music or your favorite talk radio station. A Sound Beginning, icalmpet, or other sites (including many free online) have specially produced music to relax dogs and cats.
Each of the following options has potentially calming effects and is something dogs can wear:
- Thundershirt: A vest that applies gentle, constant pressure, similar to swaddling an infant – originally created for dogs fearful of storms.
- Storm Defender: a cape with a special lining that surrounds your dog.
- Anxiety Wrap: uses acupressure and gentle, maintained pressure to help relieve stress and fear in dogs.
A Final Word
The old notion about consoling a terrified pet only serving to reinforce fear is not true. You can’t reinforce such a powerful emotion. In fact, some pets can be calmed just by us paying attention and using soothing words. Soothing our pets when they are fearful can help them feel more comfortable in the moment but kindness alone rarely solves the problem. Seek assistance from a reputable behavior specialist who utilizes Fear Free techniques.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant), hosts two national pet radio shows and is on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s a regular contributor/columnist for many publications, including CATSTER, Veterinary Practice News, and the Journal of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. He’s appeared on dozens of TV shows, including Oprah, many Animal Planet Programs, and National Geographic Explorer. He has contributed to or authored many pet books and veterinary textbooks such as “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management” and co-edited Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. He speaks at conferences around the world. www.stevedale.tv.
Published June 29, 2020