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Dealing with Firework Fears (And Noise, And Storms...)

This article was originally written as a short safety blurb for Independence Day, but the main ideas apply to pets with noise or storm anxiety as well. Some are short-term help that might be useful today; others are long-term projects geared towards a more well-adjusted canine companion. All are also equally applicable to similar fears, such as thunderstorms.

Safety First
  • All dogs should be kept inside when storms or fireworks are a reasonable expectation, and leashes should be used for potty breaks/walks. The 4th of July is one of the biggest days of the year for lost pets and hit-by-car accidents. Some firecrackers go off in the distance, and suddenly Muffy is over the fence and five blocks away.
  • Likewise, make sure your pets have identification and your phone number on their collar. Microchips are good as well.
  • As an aside - we generally see a few firework-ingestion toxicities around the 4th, too. Keep that stuff put away!
Feeling Safe
  • If you have a basement that's relatively sound-proof, it may be the perfect place for Fido to hang out. What you don't know can't scare the living daylights out of you.
  • Ever notice that your pet seems calmer when you hold them close, or that they tend to hide in tight spaces? Tight-fitting wraps may dramatically improve your pet's feeling of security and lessen anxiety. One good product is the Thundershirt; you can try improvising to help Spot out by dressing him up in an appropriately-sized human tee-shirt and knotting the bottom to make it fit tighter.
  • Many dogs that struggle with noise fears have already figured out a "safe place," usually a tight spot in a closet, under the bed, in their crate, or in my dog's case....behind the toilet. Often we're tempted to drag them out and console them, but it's generally best to leave them be - even to encourage them to seek these spots out.
Long-Term Improvement
  • Try to desensitize fearful pets by exposing them to the problem at low levels in a controlled environment, gradually working up to full stimulus. For example, get a thunderstorm video and play it on low to start (guys - this a good wife-centered excuse to upgrade the home theater). Here's a good article that goes into more depth on desensitizing.
  • This is counter-intuitive, but you should really avoid consoling anxious pets if possible. Things like touch and attention trigger the body's physiologic reward systems, dumping them full of feel-good endorphins and the like. Sounds like a good thing, but it's generally not enough to overwhelm the anxiety, and instead it can function as a reward for the anxiety they can't control already. Ultimately, signs can get worse. There is a BIG caveat to this logic, though - pets who get extremely agitated may need to be comforted to keep them from hurting themselves.
Better Living Through Chemistry
  • Working through a desensitization process to overcome fears is always the best option. That's not always possible, though, and your veterinarian can prescribe medications to ease anxiety and lessen destructive or dangerous behaviors if necessary.
  • There are a variety of nutritional supplements and pheromone-based products marketed over-the-counter that claim to calm pets. Always talk with your vet before putting anything in your dog - there's very little regulation of this stuff and lots of money to be made. One product that's safe and sometimes helpful is dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) - it's rarely enough for severe fears, but it can help some dogs. Tryptophan-based products may provide some helpful sedation, too (it's the stuff in turkey that leaves everyone passed out in front of the TV on Thanksgiving).
  • A word about acepromazine, a drug sometimes prescribed for these problems. It is only a tranquilizer - it removes the ability/will to act out, but it does not reduce fear. That means Fido may sit there calmly, but inside he's likely still terrified - he just can't do anything about it. For dogs who become so panicked they are a danger to themselves and others it can be a valid option to keep them safe - but usually there are better choices.