Updated: Jul 17, 2020
July 4th can be one of the most challenging days of the year for pets and their owners. Many dogs and cats express their fear of fireworks by trembling, trying to hide, or attempting to run away. Given that many cities have reported record numbers of fireworks, this Independence Day and summer are shaping up to be especially tough for pets with sound phobias.
Here’s what you need to know.
Dr. Jones Explains:
Animals instinctively find loud noises threatening. In fact, around half of dogs have some sound sensitivity, and a large proportion of those animals have fear responses strong enough for it to be considered a full-blown phobia. Their hearing is far better than ours, so what may seem far away or not that loud to humans can be a perfectly reasonable cause for panic in pets. Sadly, I've seen dogs who have given themselves lacerations, corneal ulcers, and fractured their nails trying to break out of an enclosure during fireworks.
As you might guess, July 4th and 5th are extremely busy at animal shelters and veterinary ERs. If you have a sick or injured pet, you might be in for a long wait.
Now for the good news: There is plenty you can do to help your pet relax along with the rest of the neighborhood. Even better — what you need may already be in your house.
How to Keep Dogs and Cats Calm During Fireworks
Tip #1: Make a safe space for your pets.
They might feel safest in their unlocked crate in the living room, but until the first ka-BOOM, you won’t know for sure. Give them the option of a closet, and make sure you leave the door cracked — closets can get way too hot, and pets can easily overheat. You can also close the blinds to prevent bright lights from creating more stressful stimuli.
Tip #2: Don’t lock them in a crate.
Shelter is good, but putting them somewhere where they can’t move freely might make them feel trapped. This can lead to dogs hurting themselves out of sheer panic. Let them choose where they want to hang out, and give them the option to re-join their humans if they change their mind.
Tip #3 TREATS.
Say it out loud: Treats! Frozen kongs and puzzle feeders can do the trick, but use whatever treat you know your pet loves. This is called counterconditioning, and one study found that it was an effective treatment for 70% of dogs with noise phobias.
Tip #4: Lots of attention.
Give your pet lots of attention before and during the fireworks. Taking a long walk beforehand should calm your dog’s nerves, and playing with them during the fireworks can have a similar effect as treats — distraction is key.
Tip #5 : Set a good example.
Make sure you’re creating a calm atmosphere. Offer lots of affection, even if your pet chews on something they shouldn’t or has an accident. If you scold your pet, they may associate your anger with the explosions outside, making their fear of loud noises even worse.
Tip #6: Try over-the-counter remedies.
If your pet has mild to moderate anxiety, you may want to try these over-the-counter measures before deciding to use prescription medications. And if you have questions about dosage for any over-the-counter medications, make sure to get in touch with your vet before administering to your pet.
Try treats that contain calming supplements, like colostrum. Carefully follow the instructions, and remember that you may need to feed supplements to your pet well before the fireworks start.
Anecdotally, thundershirts (or “anxiety wraps”) have helped some dogs with noise phobias. There isn’t a ton of research behind these claims, but one study showed that 44% of dog owners found them effective for treating noise-related anxiety, so they’re worth a try.
You may have heard about CBD as a viable treatment for anxiety in pets. Many pet owners swear by it, but there are still many unknowns around CBD’s efficacy. If you do try a CBD product, make sure it’s a formulation specifically for pets, and not humans. It’s also essential to make sure you’re giving your pet the correct amount for their weight.
Benadryl can help in a pinch, but keep in mind that it will only make your pet drowsy, and doesn’t relieve anxiety.
Tip #7 : Medicate safely.
If you know your pet just can’t deal, make sure you talk to your vet to get them the right medication. Every pet is different, so you should get some professional advice before you head to the pharmacy.
Alprazolam is one of the most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications for dogs with noise sensitivities.
Dexdomitor (aka Sileo) is another sedative that is approved for calming dogs.
Make sure to talk to your vet about any other medication your pet takes — including over-the-counter medications and supplements — before filling a prescription. Sedatives can have some pretty intense side effects, including sleepiness and throwing up, so it’s important you’re aware of how your pet might react.
As with the other over-the-counter options, you must carefully read the dosage instructions. Some anti-anxiety medications may require you to start administering them well in advance of the noise, which makes them not quite the quick-fix that many pet owners want.
Tip #8: Acclimate your dog to fireworks.
Playing recordings of fireworks can help your pet get used to the noise. The downside: This method takes some time — you can’t start on July 3rd. For this type of exposure therapy to work, you need to start weeks or even months before the big day.
This method also requires some positive reinforcement. Simply playing the scary noise and walking away may actually do more harm than good. Start with the sound at a reasonable volume, and when you hit “play,” be ready with treats. Hopefully, your dog’s Pavolovian response will take over when the real fireworks begin, and they’ll have learned that loud noises mean a tasty snack is on its way.
Pro tip: This is the same advice we give our pregnant clients to prepare their pets for the change to their environment. Start playing baby crying noises months in advance, and avoid unpleasant reactions when the newcomer arrives.
Tip #9: Microchips are essential.
This one is as much for you as your pet. Running away is a very common panic response, so make sure your pet has a microchip. Studies have shown that dogs with microchips have a significantly higher chance of reuniting with their owner. Check to make sure your microchip information is up to date, and keep the microchip number handy. Other practical steps include making sure your pet has a secure leash (for your pre-firework walk, in case of any warm-up explosions), and a collar with a clearly printed address and phone number.
Tip #10: Talk to your vet.
Lots of pets have an extreme fear of loud noises, but one study found less than one third of pet owners sought professional help. This is the perfect opportunity to try a digital consultation — a video call with your vet can provide more personalized advice about what to do to treat your pet’s noise sensitivities.
Start the conversation today, and put yourself in a good place to make July 4th – and the rest of this noisy summer – a way less scary time for your pet, and a lot more fun for you.