Firework phobias in pets (or indeed fear of any loud noises) are an extremely common occurrence with symptoms ranging from a mild fear to an extreme phobic response. The treatment they require to help them through the firework season, and potentially cure them for the future, depends on which type of response they are showing. There are many options available to help make the firework season go a little more smoothly for pets who are scared. Here are a few basic tips to get you started:
Before Firework Night
Create a hiding place.
When animals are scared, they like to hide away. Creating a ‘den’ can be an incredibly helpful tool to use for your pet. Pulling sofas out slightly from the wall to allow room for your dog to get behind or cardboard boxes turned upside down for cats and small dogs can be enough. Creating these beforehand allows the pet to explore these novel areas whilst calm and relaxed which will make them more appealing when they are fearful. Never lock your pet away in a cage during firework season, hiding needs to be their choice in order for it to work and they should never feel trapped whilst afraid.
There are a variety of treatments available to help your pet through this difficult time including pheromones (scented hormones), e.g. Adaptil and Feliway which help illicit a feeling of calm, and capsules to increase their tolerance of stressful stimuli (e.g. Zylkene). These products need to be purchased in advance to allow them to reach therapeutic levels. For more severe cases, prescriptions of tranquillisers may be required from your vet.
On Firework night
Keep pets inside.
Take dogs out for their walks before it gets dark and keep cats indoors. Sudden noises, whether they seemed bothered by fireworks or not, can startle animals and cause them to bolt. They can easily become disorientated or lost, heightening the risk of road traffic accidents. Making sure your pet is microchipped and that your contact details on the chip are up to date can help with reuniting you and your pet should they go missing at any time, not just around firework season. Pet rabbits and guinea pigs who live outside in hutches should be moved inside for the duration of the firework season, or at least into a shed or garage so as to minimise the stress for them. Covering the hutches in thick blankets can help muffle sounds and block flashes of light as well as keeping hutches cosy and warm.
Block sights and sounds.
Closing the curtains, keeping lights switched on and keeping a TV or radio on high volume can help mask any noises and flashes from outside which your pet may find distressing. If your pet chooses a den or hiding place, covering this area with a thick dense blanket can also help muffle the noises from outside.
Don’t reinforce the behaviour.
It can be very distressing to see your pet scared but over-fussing them can inadvertently reward and reinforce fearful behaviour. The same goes for telling them off- never get angry with your pet, they don’t understand what is going on and telling them off just proves they have something to be fearful of. The best thing is to ignore fearful behaviour. If they seek you out for comfort, allow them to be close to you but try not to talk to them or stroke them too much; it is much better that they see you calm and non-responsive and let them feed off this. If they choose to hide away, let them; this is an excellent coping strategy for an animal to have and shows they are dealing with their fears in a natural way (although this should still be addressed to prevent future problems). If your pet shows pacing, panting, excessive vocalisation (barking and miaowing) and/or destructive behaviours, these could be signs of a phobic response and you should contact your vet for advice as soon as possible.
Long Term Solutions
The only way to help them overcome any fear or phobia is by the processes of desensitisation and counter-conditioning.
Desensitisation of fireworks is achieved through the use of a recording of firework sounds, played at increasing volumes over a period of time dependant on the animal’s level of fear or phobic response displayed. The theory behind this is that loud noises aren’t so scary if they are quiet- and if they start quiet and get louder very gradually, the animal learns to ignore them. These recordings are available for download from the internet. These recordings are also incredibly useful for puppies to hear, regardless of the time of year, to help prepare them for future events whilst they are still young and impressionable. One of our vets started using his own downloaded version in August with his young puppy in the hope she will completely ignore fireworks once they start.
Counter-conditioning works best when used alongside desensitisation and uses positive association. This is where something which was initially negative becomes the source of something positive. In the case of fireworks, what I recommend is whilst the sounds are being played, your pet experiences something that it enjoys. This is much easier for dogs, who can be fed, given treats, or have a game of fetch etc whilst the noises are occurring in the background. If these things only happen when the firework sounds are being played, they start to associate the noises with good times and therefore look forward to hearing them instead of dreading them. In cats, this can be a little difficult, but playing the sounds whilst they are resting or eating will help, although the process may be slower.
Pets who do not show a fearful response should be nurtured and have this calm behaviour reinforced. With my own pets, I always make sure that on and around firework night and New Year, I have a pack of very tasty treats at hand which get distributed every time a firework goes off (although very tiny pieces to avoid causing problems such as hyperactivity in the short term and obesity long-term!) this means they always have a positive experience with fireworks and hopefully will never develop the fear experienced by so many.