Creating Calm After the Chaos

Martin Family Halloween 2015
Scary Scarecrow and his friendly Crow
Now that the tricks and treats of Halloween and Samhain are coming to a close, it’s easy to become complacent as we wind down, but be aware: Your animal companions might still be wound up!  The endless sights, sounds, and stressors of Halloween might have deeply affected your animal companions.
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“Oh the crazy things my humans do …” – King Albert the Grey could do without the shenanigans of Halloween

Hocus Pocus and the Kitty Boyz did quite well during the pre and post Halloween festivities because we set everyone up for success, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is Cool and The Gang afterward.  The day after a cacophony of commotion is often when families observe their pets becoming irritable and reactive.  We refer to this as trigger stacking.

Trigger stacking is how stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactive behavior.  This kind of behavior is also seen in humans; think about when you have lost your temper after one stressful thing after another happens.  When an individual is pushed over their threshold, we see reactivity.  A ‘threshold’ is the point at which one reacts.  They quickly switch from an operant-thinking-mode to a non-thinking-survival-mode.

When the non-thinking-survival-mode kicks in the individual will either fight, flight (flee), fiddle, or freeze.  Below are The 4 F’s –  4 common behavior patterns that animals (and people) will do when afraid or feeling threatened:

  1. Flight
  2. Fight
  3. Freeze
  4. Fiddle About

Stress is both a physical and mental problem.

Stressful events affect all living beings, even on the cellular level.  And be aware: these stress hormones don’t just disappear once the stressful event is over.  The stress hormones can last for days, and even weeks with some individuals.

When conditions in the environment continue to stack up, and when multiple triggers (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time, they can have a cumulative harmful effect on the animal.  These stress hormones cause the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not.

Over the years we have observed each animal in our home respond with a different type of reactivity to their individual perceived threats.  The dog has been known to lunge and bark, freeze and growl, or retreat.  Her response depended on what she felt threatened by, and by her individual stress/hormone levels at that moment.  Each of the cats has their own individual response, depending on the trigger at the time, and their individual stress hormone levels. You might recall one of your animals behaving this way when they are stressed. You might even recall doing this yourself!

Cortisol is an adrenal hormone with a great number of effects on the body.  The level goes up or down quickly in response to stress.

Pet owners will often see this kind of reactivity when multiple stimuli occur in a short period of time (example: Halloween!)    It’s important to know that we don’t get to decide what’s stressful for the animal; these stimuli are anything that the individual animal is sensitive to.  A reactive animal can be sensitive to dogs, cats, people, sounds, objects, and/or their environment.  This sensitivity can be displayed by various types of reactive behavior such as running, hiding, freezing, growling, hissing, air snapping, biting, and guarding resources such as food, bedding, spaces, people, etc.

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Often during holidays and festive times pets can be under rested. Be sure to give them ample down time for rest. This can reduce their stress levels and reduce reactivity.

365 days a year we do our best to help every animal in our home to feel safe and secure. We continue to counter condition each animal to their individual perceived threats, and we strive to set them all up for success.  We use tools and techniques to ensure their perceived threat level is at zero.  But these are only pieces of the peaceful puzzle.

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King Albert and Beaux are sharing warm sunny spot, enjoying the peace

Reducing Stress Levels by Creating “Down Time”

How do you feel when you are tired and irritable after a long stressful day?  Our animal companions feel this and more when they are forced to participate, or even observe our human shenanigans.  Just watching and listening to so many strange sights and sounds can greatly increase their stress hormone levels!  But we can help them recover by giving them a “cortisol vacation.”   One of the most loving and helpful things we can do as animal guardians is offer all of the animals in our home plenty of safe, quiet places of refuge, especially after busy weekends such as this one.  We can create plenty of “pet down time.”  We can do this by encouraging them to take naps, get plenty of deep sleep, and lots of rest.  We can create a peaceful, calm environment.  Think of ways that you can create peaceful personal retreats for every living being in your home, including yourself!

Knox and I are good at encouraging one another to chillax.
Knox and I are good at encouraging one another to chillax.

Boundaries, Please. 

Creating safe boundaries is an essential key to creating peace and harmony in your home, especially after stressful festivities.  If you have children, guide them by showing them how to to respect the animal’s space or enclosure.  Teach them to be mindful and respectful of each individual animal’s tolerance for noise and commotion.  Ensure that the pets have their own safe bubble where they are free from being “loved on” (AKA being pestered).  If you have family or friends visiting, remind them to give the animals space.  If the animals choose to be around your guests, remember that the dog or cat may be excited to see newcomers, but in the next instant they very well could be more protective of things they consider “high value” such as bedding, treats, their people, and their food. Remember those stress hormones are in their system!  Also, if the animals in your home are not the best of buds, and they’re merely coexisting with one another, creating safe spaces for each animal and managing your home environment carefully is imperative.  Give everyone ample safe space!

Being aware of each animal’s individual threshold, and their need for safe, quiet refuge after any kind of commotion is how we become conscious companions for the animals with which we share a home.

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Hocus Pocus tucked in and sleeping soundly after the Halloween festivities.

Was your family prepared for the festivities this year? How did your animal companions do during the commotion? Are you all having a relaxed Sunday together? How do you help your animals and yourself decompress after big events?

Blessings of peace to you and yours!

The Fourth of July Doesn’t Have to Be “Feline Fright Night”!

cats and fireworks how to keep cats safe on 4th of July

The 4th of July is a favorite day of celebration for many people, but let’s be honest.  It’s a day of terror for many pets.  And while we’re at it, let’s be even more precise: the Forth of July might as well be renamed “Feline Fright Night” for most cats.  So what’s a devoted cat guardian to do?? There is a cornucopia of clever advice for dog owners to help their canine companions on the Night of Assault on the Senses, but what about the cats??  Cats need help, too!

Feline Fact:  Hearing is a cat’s best developed sense.  A cat’s sense of hearing is far more acute than that of dogs and humans!  A cat can hear sounds up to 64,000 kHz.  By comparison, dogs can hear sounds up to 45,000 kHz, while humans hear sounds only up to 23,000 kHz.

So why does this matter? Well, it means that all sounds are much more intense for cats.  Combine this fact with a cat’s lack of understanding (or appreciation) for a day dedicated to deliberately making things explode, and you have the perfect recipe for a full on Feline Freak Out.

Here’s the good news:  family festivities such as the 4th of July don’t have to become the Feline Fright Night to our kitty friends!  There are many things that you can do to help your feline family members successfully cope with the Big, Bad Booms and Bangs this weekend.  Below are some of my most valuable tools to help you become a Conscious Companion, and change Fourth of July Fright Night into a stress-free experience for everyone in the home!


How to Make Your Home a SAFE, CALM Haven for your Feline BEFORE The FIREWORKS Begin!

  • Keep Kitty Indoors!  Even the savviest of kitties can become startled, scared, disoriented, or confused and stray far from home when those frightening sights and sounds begin. More pets go missing on/after Independence Day than any other day of the year! Why risk it?  Keep your cats inside the day and night before, during, and a few days after July 4th.  Be aware that Independence Day is on a Friday this year. It’s a safe bet that the firework festivities will last long into the weekend, so be sure to keep your Pet Guardian guard up!  Don’t assume that once the 4th of July passes, that the booms and cracks have passed, too. Be ready for anything!
  • Create Safe Zones. – Make a Feline Fort Hideout!  Set up a “fort” or safe place of refuge for your cat(s) in the home.  If you don’t have a “safe room” yet, I strongly recommend that you create one today.  It can 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 cozy kitty den.  Even the space underneath a bed can comforting to cats.  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.

    Our youngest cat, Knox, hiding in his favorite box that we refer to as
    Our youngest cat, Knox, hiding in his favorite box that we refer to as “Fort Knox”

TIP:  If you are not sure where to set up this safe zone, observe where each cat 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 want to build Fort Hideout!

TIP:  If you have a nervous kitty like we do, prepare ahead of time for their comfort and safety.  Make sure they have their favorite cozy hideaway ready.  If they love boxes, provide one or two for them to explore. You can also consider adding a dash of catnip to get them relaxed and increase their confidence! Remember that some cats become relaxed on catnip, while others can become very wound-up.

scaredy cat
“Help! My world is exploding all around me!”
  • Play Calming Music. Soothing classical music is beneficial for many species. Therapeutic music such as Through a Cat’s Ear  and iCalm for Cats has been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and have calming effects on cats!  It is psycho-acoustically designed and clinically demonstrated to calm the 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!

NOTE: Don’t just crank up any old tunes or the T.V. in an attempt to make the inside of the house louder than outside. That will only create more stress on the cats. Keep the energy inside peaceful and calm.

  • Consider homeopathic calming remedies.  Homeopathic relaxation supplements such as Feliway (cat appeasing pheromones), Spirit Essences, HomeoPet, and Pet Rescue Remedy are very helpful with calming an cat’s nerves on the big bad boom day.  We use Spirit Essences —This product does wonders for stress levels!  Check with your veterinarian before you use them.

    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.
    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.

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 spray it on their favorite napping spots to make them feel more secure.

Note:  If your cat has reacted very badly to fireworks, etc. in the past, you can consider discussing stronger medications with a veterinarian who specializes in feline anti-anxiety medicine. I recommend trying the above products before rushing to the vet for prescription meds! We have seen incredible success with these products.  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.

  • Utilize Tactile Tools.  There are two wraps on the market that reportedly help pets with noise phobias.  The original Anxiety Wrap uses acupressure and maintained pressure to reduce stress.  Thunder Shirts have been successful with calming many cats.  Over 85% of Thundershirt users see significant improvement in noise anxiety symptoms.  The Storm Defender Cape has a metallic lining that discharges the 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!

    thundershirt for cats
    Thundershirts can be very helpful for many cats.
  • Reduce the Visual Assault.  Close the windows and blinds or anything around the house that will help to eliminate the visual assault on their senses.  Turn on lights around the house. This will also help to block out the flashes from the fireworks.
  • Comfort Your Cat! If your cat is displaying fear and anxiety when the fireworks begin, stay calm and stay near them. Contrary to some belief, this is NOT rewarding fearful behavior!
  • Distract them! Start playful game and break out the treats if they are beginning to show signs of fear and anxiety.  You can also offer novelty items such as cat nip, special treats, and enrichment toys. Grab some of that recycling material and create a fast, homemade puzzle toy!  The idea here is to turn Fright Night into Fun Night!

TIP: Withholding these toys for a few days ahead of time will make these treats even more special on the Night of Assault on the Senses.


How do you keep your feline family members safe on The Fourth of July? Please share your tips!

Things That Go BOOM In The Night

fireworks

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.

scared-parrot
“What are those loud sounds and flashing lights?!”

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 CalmAviCalmFeliway, and D.A.P (dog and cat appeasing pheromones), Spirit EssencesHomeoPet, 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.

    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.
    Homeopathic remedy can provide relief from fear of Fireworks.
  • 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.
    IMG_4242
    Hocus Pocus finding comfort under the bed

    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

 

You are welcome to share this image with others!
You are welcome to share this image with others!

 

 



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.
  • 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:

                           – Panting

                           – Drooling

                           – Pacing

                           – Hiding

                           – Decreased appetite

                           – Abnormal urination or defecation

                           – Dilated pupils

                           – Excessive grooming

                           – Feather plucking + other signs of stress in parrots!

 


  • 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.
scaredy cat
“My world is exploding all around me. Help me!”
  • 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. 

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Suggested reading for cat guardians: Fireworks & Festivities Cat Safety Tips!