Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.
The Very Basic Concern
You may think your dog is afraid of fireworks, but I can all but guarantee that your dog has nothing on my dog. I first noticed it on Memorial Day last year when a nearby park had a fireworks display marking the occasion. My pug, Chester, just a few months old, became so terrified that he hid under the bed for hours.
Last July 4th was even worse — that time he was shaking so bad and breathing so heavily he almost passed out from the whole experience. On this past Memorial Day I tried to shield him from it by turning up the TV real loud to hide the sound, but that didn’t work and he still freaked out just as much. Now, July 4th is in a few days and I don’t want poor Chester to have to suffer through this again, so what can I do about it? Are there any useful solutions? Can I just have him ride it out and he’ll be fine?
Basically: What do I do when my pet’s shit-scared of fireworks?
The Expert Advice
Dr. Vanessa Spano, associate veterinarian at Behavior Vets of NYC: Noise phobia to a level where a dog is very frightened of loud noises is absolutely something that should be treated because the level of anxiety it causes is comparable to a severe panic attack in a human. That, and if it’s something that keeps happening, it will likely get worse the more they’re exposed to it without having any treatment on board. It causes extreme stress, so it’s definitely something that should be looked at.
There are a number of prescriptions that can be utilized for noise phobia and I recommend seeing a veterinary behaviorist before utilizing any of them because, just as with human medicine, each has their own side effects. One of the more common ones is Sileo, which I find to be very effective and what’s nice about that is, it’s a gel which has to be administered to your pets’ gums, which is easier than a pill. There’s also benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium or Ativan — all of these should go through a veterinarian. Once they’re prescribed, they should be administered 30 to 60 minutes before you expect the fireworks to start because if you wait until you begin to hear them they’ll be less effective and more difficult to administer.
A lot of people also ask me about CBD oil, which doesn’t need a prescription and isn’t government regulated. Unfortunately we don’t have any studies that show whether it’s effective or not. It’s not that it is or isn’t effective, we just literally don’t have the studies on CBD oil in relation to anxiety in dogs, so I don’t recommend it simply because we don’t know enough about it and we don’t know what other medications it may react with.
There’s also noise training that you can do with a dog, where you train them well beforehand by playing fireworks sounds on a very low volume and then have them associate those sounds with very positive things through positive reinforcement, but I would probably recommend a trained behaviorist to help with that, as it’s likely going to take someone with a lot of training to know when to increase the volume and move the dog up to the next level, or move them back down if the dog’s not ready.
Overall, I’d recommend going with more than one approach for a dog with noise phobia, so you can try something like a Thundershirt along with medications approved by your veterinarian — that’d probably be your best bet.
Anthony Esposito, certified pyrotechnician and owner of July 4 Ever Fireworks: The good thing is, if you want to set off fireworks at your own home and you have pets, they do make what are called “noiseless” fireworks which have much less noise than professional fireworks do. For people with horses or dogs or other animals susceptible to getting scared of fireworks, these are much better as their chemical composition is such that they’re made to be much quieter.
If you’re looking for them, I’d recommend going to a standing brick-and-mortar store rather than one of those tents that you see pop up around the holidays. The people in the actual stores tend to know the products much better and will know which fireworks create the least amount of noise so that your animals won’t be afraid.
Kyle Kittleson, animal behaviorist and MedCircle host: The biggest thing people do incorrectly is that they become very reactive to the problem instead of proactive. So they wait for their dog to get very scared and then they start asking, “What do I do now?” and by then it’s almost too late. The first thing to do is to make the days leading up to the fireworks incredibly exhausting for your dog, and I say exhausting in the most positive way possible. So we want to increase the walks, we want to increase their cardio. If you’re walking a mile a day, make it two miles. If they’re walking two miles already, start running them, really boost their exercise a day or two before fireworks day so that when fireworks day rolls around, they’re just so tired they’ll be like, “Who cares about fireworks? Just let me sleep.”
Also, while I’m not an ambassador for them or anything, I definitely recommend the Thundershirt for a dog afraid of fireworks — I’d say it probably works about 50 percent of the time. Basically, it’s like a vest for your dog that gives them that comforting swaddling effect which helps bring anxiety way down, which is similar to humans with a weighted blanket. This is why you’ll see a dog hide under a table or between beds or under a bed during fireworks: It’s not so much that they think they’re safe there as much as they’re trying to recreate that pressure that the vest would give.
Then you’ve got to have plenty of things for your dog to do when the fireworks are happening. You want to have lots of puzzle toys, like a KONG with peanut butter, and a toy that the dog has never seen before. Also, toys that make a lot of noise, anything that’s using all of your dog’s senses so that they can be focused on that instead of the fireworks. DOGTV may be helpful, too.
Finally, if your dog is really freaking out about the fireworks, one thing you should not do is overly coddle your dog. You’ll see a lot of people respond how they’d respond to an adult human, but people and dogs respond differently to interactions with people. Most of the time just makes your dog more anxious. If you keep telling them, “It’s okay” and you keep petting them, all the dog is hearing is that there’s something crazy going on outside and your own anxiety and special treatment is only freaking them out more. So don’t climb under the bed with them — instead, the owner needs to be super cool and calm. The dog is going to pick up on whatever energy you project, so try to act like it’s no big deal.
Aside from dogs, the other pets who have the biggest problem with fireworks are birds and unfortunately, all you can really do with them is try to put them to bed a little earlier. As for cats, they’ll probably hide even more than a dog will. The most I would do for them is maybe moving them into a bedroom for the night and leaving their food, pan and cat tower in there, especially if you’re having friends over for some kind of party. And definitely don’t give them catnip before the fireworks, because that’ll be way too much anxiety for them.
Renee Mazzie, manager at Hudson Valley SPCA: We always recommend keeping dogs inside when you’re expecting fireworks. We have a lot of dogs here at the shelter, but we have enough room indoors to fit them all inside if they need to. I definitely don’t recommend bringing your dog to any kind of event with noise like that: Some people like to put a bandana on their dog and take them to the park for the Fourth of July because they think it’s cute, but unless your dog is used to something like that and it’s something that you’ve done with them every single year, it’s not worth taking the chance because there’s a good chance your dog will get scared and just run.
If that happens, obviously you’ll look in the direction they ran, but with all that noise and all of those strangers, dogs can become very disoriented, which is how they get lost. If you can’t find them that night, I recommend people locate a local Facebook group for lost pests and post there right away. We have a local one here and most pets posted on it are found within 72 hours, so I’d get right on that.
All of that can be avoided by just keeping the dog at home. I have also seen people get a collar called a calming collar, which releases natural pheromones that help with anxiety. I recommend putting it on a couple of weeks beforehand so it has the time to get into their system. If nothing else though, at least bring your dog inside, please.