Animals’ response to fireworks can vary from a very laconic ‘Bothered,’ to a performance worthy of the grandest of divas. Tash, one of our nurses, has two dogs who try to perform the magical act of fitting about 30 kilos of dog into a 10 kilo space under her couch each year. Others find that ordinarily pacific pooches can become aggressive, mellow moggies turn into tigers and the best house training can be insufficient to prevent a little sorrowful soiling.
Halloween, followed by Guy Fawkes night, followed by Christmas and then New Years Eve means that now instead of having to grin and bear one night of fireworks pets and their anxious owners can expect several weeks in which fireworks can be a disturbingly regular occurrence. This can make it particularly hard to prepare adequately and remember, with their sense of hearing, your stressed out canine or feline will be able to hear many more fireworks much more clearly than you or I could ever imagine.
So what can you do to help you friend prepare and try to make the whole experience more pleasant for everyone?
The first and most important thing for you to do is... relax. Animals are great readers of body language. In fact they can tell a lot more about how you’re feeling from the way you hold your head than what comes out of it. When your pet is at their most agitated, possibly barking, shaking cowering or snapping, if your response is to try to soothe him by sitting next to him, stroking him and telling him what a good boy he is, what he hears is that he is right to behave in the way he is and is a very good boy for doing so. Don’t punish your dog for inappropriate behaviour, but try to distract them from their fears and get them to engage in more positive behaviour, such as eating, sitting quietly or playing, and then tell them what a good boy they are being.
Remember, they are not being naughty, they are scared. And if you are too soothing you are reminding them that there is indeed something scary out there. The better you are at showing them that you are not scared or bothered in any way, the better they will be at believing you. Of course we are not upset by the storm, we are upset by their distress, but they can’t really tell the difference.
Try to make sure they have somewhere they can go and feel very safe. It may be in their bed or up on the couch. And make sure that it is not somewhere they only go when they are afraid or they will come to associate it with their fear. Spend some times in the days leading up to when you think they are likely to become agitated playing and feeding them in that place and it can become somewhere they can go to relax when they need a little extra peace.
Try not to change routines too much. Don’t let them on the couch if they are not normally allowed up there. Try not to run around the house yelling at everyone to close the windows when the fireworks start as this will add to stress. Don’t turn the tv up too loud only when the fireworks start, although doing this regularly in the days leading up to the event can help to desensitise.
Speak to friends and others who have had similar experiences. But do remember that no two dogs are exactly the same and what worked for one may not work in exactly the same way for another. As with so many things to do with animals, I always believe that anyone who tells you the answer is very simple has probably not understood the question!
Working with your Vet
As you can imagine this is an issue we see year after year and your vet should be able to help you. This may be as simple as advice over the phone. This is particularly important if you are considering using any form of medication or other treatment options. Your neighbour may well have successfully used a treatment in their own dog or may have used something that they bought from the chemist for the cat. But they may not know that some sedatives make particular dog breeds susceptible to seizures. They may not know that valium, which can be used in dogs and humans causes liver necrosis in cats or they may not know that the medication they are recommending could combine with the arthritis treatment your dog is on to cause stomach ulceration. So please, give us a ring or drop in. We are always happy to chat!
In some severe cases it may be necessary to consider using a medication to control the problem. However, it is worth remembering that there is usually a cost, both financially and in terms of possible unwanted side effects. So your vet will want to speak with you about the risks of using or not using these kinds of treatment. In the case of prescription medications we are both legally and morally required to conduct a full examination before starting treatment.
Adding to the issues with medications is that some of them may need to be used for up to 30 days before any benefits can be seen. Given the length of time that fireworks can occur this can make for an extended period of medicating your animal. The only thing worse than having a drunk Auntie Beryl ruining your Christmas lunch would be having a drugged out daschund in your home for the entire winter.
So there it is. Try to stay happy and relaxed. Think about what kind of behaviour you actually want to see when the fireworks start and how to encourage it. Talk to your friends, ring us for a chat and if need be then we can talk about what more needs to be done.