It’s that time of year again: Diwali, Halloween and Bonfire Night (for readers in the UK) are all less than a month away.
If you have a dog that’s scared of fireworks, then there are a few changes you can make right now that may help you through fireworks season.
I feel your pain as my dog is terrified of loud noises and this time of year is a struggle for us.
We’ve found a few things that help, so here are my 10 top tips on how to keep your dog calm through fireworks season, and I hope they help you too.
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1) Check for undiagnosed pain
A recent study found that many dogs that reacted anxiously to loud noises had undiagnosed muscular or skeletal pain.
Once these dogs were put on a course of painkillers, they were less reactive to noise. They found that when a dog with chronic pain tensed up in response to a scary noise, this caused additional hurt, setting up a negative feedback loop that was finally broken by treating the pain.
So, if you have a dog who seems irrationally scared of fireworks, it might be worth booking them an appointment with your vet or veterinary physiotherapist to rule out untreated pain as the cause.
Please don’t try giving your dog painkillers meant for humans, and seeing if this fixes things, as most human drugs are toxic to pets. If your vet thinks your dog would benefit from painkillers, then they will prescribe pet-safe drugs.
2) Avoid if you can
This sounds like stating the obvious, but it’s very easy to overlook if you are used to following a set routine. If you know when fireworks are likely to be set off then try and avoid your dog being outside at those times/in those areas. Get up early and do your main walk in the mornings or try to schedule your evening walk for late afternoon while it’s still light.
Go out for evening potty breaks on leash so your dog has no chance to bolt if rockets start to go off. Start this at least a week before you think you’ll have noise problems to allow your dog to get used to their new routine.
3) Screen out the outside
Again, this sounds too obvious, but again it’s easy to overlook. An open window can cause outside noises to be much louder, more immediate and scarier. So, shut all doors and windows and shut your curtains/blinds as soon as it gets dark. Put on the TV or a radio/podcast to mask noises from outside. Play tug and fetch games or use the time for a grooming session. Anything to divert your dog’s attention from outside.
The Dog’s Trust UK in consultation with top animal behaviourists have a produced a series of scary sound audio tracks (fireworks/gunshot/traffic noise/thunder etc) which can be used to habituate dogs to these noises. These can be accessed for free through their website along with a PDF booklet which details how to use them.
It’s a simple program to follow. You can pick the tracks with the sounds that your dog is most reactive to and play them at the lowest possible volume several times a day. Slowly up the volume (turn it back down low if your dog reacts at all) and over a period of several weeks you should habituate your dog to the sounds. I suggest starting right now to prepare for fireworks season.
5) Make a safe space
Make sure your dog has a safe space where they can go when scared. This will likely be their usual sleeping spot (bed or crate) but they may seek out more hidden/protected corners. Once it’s clear where they have chosen, try and make it more comfortable and secluded (this can be as simple as draping a blanket over their crate, or in the case of my dog, putting a blanket in the shower tray to make it cosier, as the bathroom is her safe space!).
It’s all about creating a warm, dark, comforting den for them. When they go here, this is to be their place. Some favourite toys and/or a chew can help make it even more inviting. Make it clear to all members of the family that the dog is not to be disturbed. A scared dog can attack out of fear so make sure everyone gives them the space they need.
6) Start on calming supplements
Talk to your vet before starting your dog on any new medication or food supplements. Although there are pills you can buy without a prescription, they are not suitable for all dogs, so get your vet’s opinion first. There are several brands of food supplement “calming pills” readily available for dogs. They fall into two categories, firstly those that increase the supply of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain which can work to ease their anxiety (such as YuCalm).
It takes a few days/weeks for the levels to build up, so if trying these it would be advisable to start now. A second type uses valerian herbal extracts that are clinically proven to reduce brain activity associated with anxiety. If using valerian start a few days/week before. In the UK these can be purchased from Dorwest Herbs.
7) What about CBD oil?
You’ve probably heard of CBD oil. It’s an oil derived from hemp (cannabis) plants but without sufficient quantities of the psychoactive compounds to make you high. It’s been used successfully in human patients for chronic pain management. Because the oil is extracted from cannabis it is controlled by drug legislation in many parts of the world. It may or may not be legal to possess in your state/country so please check your local drug laws!
One of the many claims made for CBD oil is that it can cure anxieties in pets. There are at present no published veterinary studies to back this claim. In the UK there are no listed conditions that vets may prescribe CBD oil for, but there are many brands marketed for use with pets, and it’s easy to find anecdotal stories where people will tell you how CBD oil helped their dog.
One veterinary study which looked at CBD oil use for managing arthritis pain in dogs found increased levels of liver enzymes after 2-4 weeks and the authors concluded that long-term use could possibly result in liver disease. So, please check the legal situation where you live, and speak to your vet and other dog owners to get their opinions.
Until there’s been more research, it would be wise to use only short-term and avoid in dogs with known propensities to develop kidney and liver disease. Personally, I wouldn’t use it for my dog, as her breed is prone to renal issues.
8) Calming pheromones
Another approach is to use calming pheromones. Mother dogs produce a chemical when nursing that is calming to the pups. This has been isolated and can be chemically synthesised. It’s available to buy without a prescription from Ceva/Adaptil as a collar (a plastic collar impregnated with the chemical, similar to a flea-collar), a plug in diffuser for the home, and a spray which can be used on bedding/collars/leads etc.
Not all dogs will react to the pheromone, but for those that do, it makes them less reactive to scary stimuli and more able to cope with life generally. I use the collars and spray with my dog, I wouldn’t describe it as a cure, but it helps take the edge off her fear. The collars last approximately one month, so my advice would be to try one now, and if you see an improvement, then maybe invest in the plug-in or the spray to double up on the effect.
9) Be calm yourself
Our dogs are very tuned-in to our body language and how we are feeling. They take their cues from how we handle a situation, so if we are calm, there’s a greater likelihood that they will be calm too. Try not to be anxious yourself, or at the very least not to show your anxiety. Act as normally as you can and talk to your dog in a soothing voice.
Some behaviourists will suggest not reacting to your dog if they show signs of fear, as by “rewarding” the fear with attention you are compounding the problem. Having lived through four years in a city that sets off fireworks for numerous festivals that scare my dog every time, I’d say that if your dog is terrified then comfort them. If they were a child that was scared, you’d go to comfort them, why should your dog be treated any different? I’d follow your intuition here and don’t make a big scene, but calmly give them a hug if they seem in distress (and are a dog that enjoys being petted).
10) Make your voice heard
Is the worst offender your neighbour who has a backyard firework display? Is there an official display with loud bangs that scares your pets? Or are you sick of the random single rockets that go up at all hours of the night? Talk to your neighbour. Say your pets are terrified and could they give you warning of when the party will take place? Phone up the town council/organisers of the official display. Tell them all about how terrified your pets are.
If rockets are going off at unsociable hours then call the police, they might not be able to find the perpetrators, but it logs the fact that citizens have concerns. Use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to spread the word about how fireworks affect animals. Governments are beginning to listen, and many areas now have stricter controls on the sale/use of fireworks and many more are considering limiting their use or switching to lower noise alternatives.
It’s worth adding your voice to the debate, it might not change things for this year, but could help for the future.
Remember, if you’ve tried these tips and they aren’t working as well as you would like and you are still worried then speak to your vet, they can prescribe sedatives for your dog as a last resort.
I hope you use these tips to good effect. Are there any I’ve missed? Do you have any advice on how to survive fireworks season? I’d love to know! If you found this article useful or if you’ve got any tips then get in touch.
Learn more about Claire and Sally in their interview with helloBARK! here.