Soon people all over the U.S. will be celebrating the Fourth of July and our neighbors to the north are preparing for Canada Day! Folks everywhere are getting ready for the visual and sound Smörgåsbord paired with good food, great friends, and family. However, most animals would probably order the food, but hold the fireworks. So while we are preparing to party, let’s prepare our pets, too.
If you have worked or lived with an animal, you know that most of them are frightened of loud or startling noises. The fear of loud sounds is called noise phobias. Even if your animal companion has not displayed this fear before, the sights and sounds on The Fourth of July could easily bring out their most intense fears.
Put yourself in their position. Imagine the scene: what is normally a peaceful evening at home suddenly turns into chaos. All of a sudden there are bright, flashing lights, loud banging sounds, people hollering boisterously, and things exploding over and over. These stimuli, paired with the unusual smell of burning sulfur and smoke, can bring on a full blown animal panic attack.
Even children can be frightened by all of this, but since parents and kids both communicate in the same language, we are able to explain to them what is happening. When our rabbit, cat, dog, or parrot is freaking out during moments like this, we cannot just sit down with them and have a calm little chat to explain, “There is really nothing to fear, so just settle down.” Anything unexpected, out of their ordinary routine, or that involves sensory overload, is a recipe for a full-on Animal Freak Out.
Whether you will be enjoying the festivities at home or away this year, you will need to prepare your home well before the festivities begin.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR HOME A SAFE, CALM PLACE BEFORE THE FIREWORKS BEGIN:
- Sound Therapy: Playing calming, classical music is beneficial for many species. Therapeutic music such as Through A Dog’s Ear and Through a Cat’s Ear has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and have calming effects on cats and dogs! It is psychoacoustically designed and clinically demonstrated to calm the canine and feline nervous system. However, it’s most effective when you play the music well before the fireworks begin, at a time when the cat or dog is already relaxed. Animals will start to associate the music with being calm and content. Then you play the music a couple of hours before the fireworks start and continue to play through bedtime. Check out these free sound samples!
- Sound Therapy combined with Desensitization: The Canine Noise Phobia series (CNP) consists of four CD’s that can be used individually or as a set: Fireworks, Thunderstorms, City Sounds, and Calming. CNP is an innovative desensitization training tool that combines three distinctive elements for the treatment and prevention of sound-sensitivities and noise-phobias. This article by Mary Strauss, published in the Whole Dog Journal, gives a comprehensive overview of possible treatments for sound phobias.
- Scent: Homeopathic relaxation supplements such as Canine Calm, AviCalm, Feliway, and D.A.P (dog and cat appeasing pheromones), Spirit Essences, HomeoPet, and Pet Rescue Remedy are extremely helpful with calming an animal’s nerves on the big day. Pet Rescue Remedy works on everything from horses to reptiles. You can find Pet Rescue Remedy at most health food stores or animal supply stores. Applying a few drops to their food, water, or directly into their mouth BEFORE the booms begin can do wonders for stress levels! Essential Oils such as lavender and valerian can also help with various anxieties. Learn how here. Note:Feliway is a liquid synthetic copy of the feline facial pheromone, used by cats to mark their territory as safe and secure. You can sprayitontheirfavoritenappingspotstomakethem feel more secure.
- Tactile: There are two wraps on the market that reportedly help sound phobic pets. The original Anxiety Wrap uses acupressure and maintained pressure to reduce stress. Thunder Shirts have been successful with calming many dogs and cats. Over 85% of Thundershirt users see significant improvement in noise anxiety symptoms. The Storm Defender Cape has a metallic lining that discharges the dog’s fur and shields them from static charge build-up before and during storms. Rubbing an animal down with scent-free dryer sheets can help with reducing the static charge as well!
- Visual: Close the blinds or anything around the house that will help to eliminate the visual assault on their senses. Turning on lights around the house will also help to block out the flashes from the fireworks.
- Fort Hideout: Set up a “fort” or safe place of refuge for them in the home. If you don’t have a “safe room” for your pets, I strongly recommend that you create one. Itcan be as simple as a chair covered with a blanket, a comfy “hidey” spot in the back of the closet, the bathroom, or a covered crate that feels like a real den. Even the space underneath a bed can comforting.
TIP: If you are not sure where to set up this safe zone, observe where each of your animal companions chooses to retreat when they are over stimulated. Ask yourself: Where do they go when company comes over, the big game is on TV, or when a storm hits? Where do they hide? That’s where you’ll want to start building Fort Hideout.
NOTE: Be sure to set up this safe zone away from windows where the sights and sounds are loudest and brightest. Acclimate them to this safe zone before the firework festivities begin. Offer treats and attention when they are in this area. By doing this, you are creating positive feelings with this safe zone.
If you have a nervous kitty like we do, prepare ahead for their comfort and safety. Make sure they have their favorite cozy hideaway ready. If they love boxes, bring one or two for them to explore. You can also consider adding a dash of catnip to get them relaxed and increase their confidence! (note: some cats become relaxed on catnip; others can become very wound-up.)
The most important thing an owner can do for their fireworks-phobic dog is to provide them with a bolt hole – a place where the dog can escape to when the festivities begin. Providing the dog access to this safe place is essential at all times, particularly during an owner’s absence. This might be a closet, bathroom or a basement, the best places usually being the ones that have no windows, but with plenty of artificial light (to mask flashes of fireworks). Music can be played close to the safe haven so that sounds can be masked. ~ Victoria Stilwell, internationally respected dog trainer
Conditioning a dog to feel differently about the sound of fireworks can be achieved by gradually exposing the dog to audio recordings of fireworks at low volume levels and, if the dog appears relaxed, playing his favorite game or feeding him his favorite food. Allowing the dog to play and relax in the presence of the soft noise for a period of ten minutes, taking a break of five minutes and repeating the exercise ensures that the dog doesn’t become bored with the training. Introducing the audio at a low level again and slowly turning up the volume if the dog continues to be relaxed and able to concentrate on playing the game or eating the food allows the dog to habituate to the noise without a fear response. If the dog shows signs of stress, going back to the previous level and building up the noise level again will take pressure off the dog. The object of noise desensitization is to gradually expose the dog to louder and louder sounds over a period of time, progress being determined by the dog’s reactions. Going too fast might make the dog even more frightened, so taking things slowly will ensure maximum benefit from the process. Some dogs will respond well to all of the above therapies, but will become panicked when the real fireworks start. It is therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and by masking any audio and visual stimuli that elicit a fear response during an episode.
~Victoria Stilwell, internationally renowned dog trainer
IMPORTANT THINGS TO CONSIDER
- Ideally, you should desensitize them to loud noises well ahead of time. When you have the opportunity, gently pair loud or startling sounds with their most favorite treats, new toys, and playtime. You don’t have to walk around the house banging pots and pans, but you can help them to associate startling, loud sounds with positive treats … days and weeks before the fireworks begin.
- I keep the following Homeopathic items handy, whether we need them or not: Feliway, Canine Calm, AviCalm, D.A.P , Spirit Essences or Pet Rescue Remedy. Think of them as an ounce of stress prevention. I give everyone Spirit Essences’ Stress Stopper before the cracking, popping and firework bangs begin, to help them stay relaxed and have a positive experience. Then I will administer more as needed.
- If you know when the party and fireworks will begin, get potty time, walks, and dinner done ahead of time. If these noises are frightening to them, they will often refuse to eat, go outside to do their business, or even use the litter box. Getting these evening “business” routines done ahead of time will make everyone more comfortable. When walking them, be sure to have a secure hold of them; fireworks can start earlier than you expect and could easily startle them!
- Get them tired! (not exhausted): If you can give them a day of play at a puppy daycare facility, or even a just couple hours of romp and play time before the Big Bad Bangs begin, their stress levels can be greatly reduced if they are already content and tired from a fun day of play and exercise. Healthy play and exercise is great for reducing stress in cats, too!
- Know the signs of STRESS! Cats and dogs, birds and other exotic companion animals show anxiety and stress in a variety of different ways. Be a Conscious Companion; learn to recognize their individual stress signals, which may include any (or all) of the following:
– Decreased appetite
– Abnormal urination or defecation
– Feather plucking
- If any of your pets are displaying fear and anxiety when the fireworks begin, stay calm and stay near them. Many people believe that comforting an animal that is afraid will ‘reinforce’ their fear, but we now know that while comforting may not necessarily stop them from being afraid altogether, it will not cause them to be more afraid when the next boom rumbles and shakes the house.
- BEFORE they are even beginning to show signs of fear and anxiety, offer them Good Things! Be playful with them! Play games and break out the treats! You can also offer novelty items such as cat nip, frozen soup (marrow) bones, Bully Sticks, and enrichment toys, such as KONG for cats and dogs! If you have parrots, check out these goodies from The Leather Elves. Grab some of that recycling material and create a fast, homemade puzzle toy! The idea here is to turn Fright Night time into Fun Night!
- TIP: Withholding these items for a few days or week ahead of time will make these treats even more special on the Night of Assault on the Senses.
- Medication alone is generally not going to “fix” much of anything. It’s can be a helpful intervention, but not a specific treatment. It needs to be paired with counter conditioning techniques. — Read how and why here.
- NOTE: Once widely prescribed for noise phobias, acepromazine not only doesn’t work, it might make things much worse!
- Avoid scolding or reprimanding them when they are frightened or nervous. Their anxiety doesn’t have to be understood, but merely respected. Many animals have fears that to us are not “rational,” but they are still very real for them.
- Note: Always comfort the animal. You cannot reinforce Fear! If you don’t believe me, read this!
It is essential that if an owner is present, time be spent with the dog in the safe haven or attention given to the dog if it comes to seek comfort from its owner. Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times. ~ Victoria Stilwell, internationally renowned dog trainer
If you absolutely must take them with you during the fireworks show, always keep them on a safe, force-free harness, or in a fortified carrier. When an animal becomes startled or frightened they will run, and often run very far. Keep them attached to you at all times. Make sure their identification tags and your contact number are clearly marked on their collars; if they do break free from home, or from you, they can be reunited faster and more easily. Having your animal companion microchipped is also another important safety measure. It’s inexpensive and can be done within minutes at your vet. More pets go missing on the 4th of July more than any other day of the year.
Animals are family, so it is natural to enjoy having them around you when you are celebrating. However, the 4th of July is not be the best time to have your animal companion tag along if you’re headed out, even if you’re going to what is supposed to be a “pet-friendly” party. If you have set up safe zones, prepared the house, and your animal companions appropriately, they are going to feel safe at home when the noise chaos begins. Home is familiar, and home is safe – so please keep them inside until the celebration is well over.