From the calls I have received this afternoon (and the way Elaine is constantly on guard), it sounds as though the fireworks are already starting. We have all read, at one time or another, articles about fear of fireworks. We blogged reminders and recommended starting behavioral modification in April with Spring Into Summer, if needed. But what if your dog was fine other years (or you were not home and did not know any different) and is terrified this year? Before panicking and thinking that Rover needs tranquilizers, let's see if he really needs "doggie downers."
There are dogs who are unfazed by fireworks. Most dogs, though, are fearful and anxious around fireworks. Their response range from suddenly stopping in their tracks and searching for the booming sounds to panic-stricken, destructive behaviors. Where your dog falls in this fear-spectrum determines the type of treatment -- from something as simple as cotton balls in their ears and closed blinds to anti-anxiety drugs or tranquilizers.
Signs of anxiety and fear may include attention-seeking (whining, pawing, climbing on you), hiding under the bed, panting, pacing, drooling or even trying to escape (outside). Cats can show some of these signs also and you can adapt some of these tips for them. For the most part, dogs are usually the more affected pets. Since most of the questions we received were from dog owners, this article will be geared more towards our canine companions than our feline friends.
What does your dog do? Shakes, whines, and keeps pawing you for attention?
These signs are considered mild anxiety (unless they escalate). We usually do not recommend anti-anxiety drugs or tranquilizers for these responses, especially in older pets. Drugs are not without adverse side effects. Behavioral modification and counter conditioning measures are better options. The more involved behavioral modification techniques are available elsewhere and is beyond the scope of these quick last-minute solutions. Try some of the following tips for now (assuming that pets are already indoors):
- Place cotton balls in her ears to muffle the sound
- If she is curled up in a corner, try draping a thick towel over her head, again to muffle the sound and provide some comfort ("If I can't see it, it can't hurt me" feeling).
- Play music with a regular deep/low reassuring beat.
- Keep doors and windows closed if possible (to shut out sounds)
- Cover up windows (blinds, curtains) to reduce the stimulus from the flashes of the fireworks.
If your dog is not too fearful and is still interactive, you can try positive association with some of these techniques:
- Turn on the music and play fetch indoors
- Play games with treats and food rewards that you know she really likes.
If your dog is shaking or whining, do the above activities instead of babying her. You want to show her that fireworks are nothing to be afraid of, not reinforce the fear behavior.
For the mildly affected pets, an antihistamine can sometimes make them drowsy enough to rest and not be as responsive to the stimulus (fireworks). It does not work for all pets and does not help the more severely affected ones. Ask your veterinarian to see if antihistamine is an option for your pets.
The above will work for pets who are mildly affected and are coming to you (attention-seeking) or restlessly pacing around the house. Do not coax or drag your dog out of hiding to do these positive association.
One of the most misunderstood fear response is hiding. What to do if your fireworks-fearing dog is hiding in the closet, under the bed, etc...?
Well, almost nothing. You can give her a blanket or cover her head. But do not coax her out so you can hold her and babytalk that everything is okay..... You will only make things worse.
Hiding is a coping mechanism for dogs. When confronted with something that trigger fear and anxiety, a dog's normal proper response is to escape to a safe place. Instead of coaxing your dog out so you can hug him, it is better to let him hide. You can make these places safer with additional blankets, cover the crate or corner area with a sheet to block out the light flashes. Keep in mind, hiding is not a sign that your dog needs tranquilizers for the fireworks. Hiding to get away from something they fear (fireworks) is acceptable as long as they are back to normal when the fireworks end that night or by the next morning. If you live in an area where the fireworks go on for days, then you may want to consider the behavior modification and counter conditioning measures above. If that does not work, you are unable to do them, and/or the fear response is too extreme, drug interventions may be needed.
What if your dog gets into panic mode, frenziedly digs at the door, gnaws at the window (to get outside), tries to jump through the window, and/or chews at the crate door?
Those are severe signs that will likely require drugs, such as an anti-anxiety drug or even a tranquilizer, to get your pet safely through the holiday. You can still try behavioral modification later but, unless you (or someone) can stay at home with your dog AND keep her from harming herself, drugs will be the better option for now.
Contact your family veterinarian for advice.
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