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Fireworks Anxiety: Not Too Late to Help


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The fireworks have begun, so now what? At this point, anti-anxiety medication, which would take weeks to kick in, won’t help. And it’s exceedingly unlikely that a gradual counter-conditioning and desensitization program to the sudden blasts and crashes of fireworks wouldn’t have nearly enough time to be effective.

There are some still options depending on your pet’s  level of anxiety, though.

If your pet’s terror level is high, or one might say in the red zone, which can include shaking, excessively salivating, becoming incontinent, decreased appetite, and/or described as “inconsolable,” contact your veterinarian and ask about SILEO (dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel). This oromucosal gel (which means it is applied to the pet’s gums) is quick-acting, and it’s made for times just like these, when there’s no time for behavior modification. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour for SILEO to take full effect, and it typically lasts two to three hours. If the noise continues, and the behavioral changes recur, further doses can be given at intervals of two hours, for up to a total of five times during each noise event as needed. 

While SILEO is effective in most dogs and safe, it is still a drug, and it is not for all dogs. Speak with your veterinarian before applying.

Instead of being fearful, some dogs can be transformed wearing a Thundershirt or Storm Defender. Wearing one of these products is comforting for some pets.

Thundershirt: A vest that applies gentle, constant pressure, similar to swaddling an infant, that reduces anxiety in pets.

Storm Defender: With a special lining in the cape, this may bring relief to your nervous pet.

Anxiety Wrap: Uses acupressure and gentle, maintained pressure to relieve stress and reduce fear in dogs.

Ear Plugs for dogs: Several types are available, including ear muffs for dogs. These were originally created for gun dogs. Sometimes convincing dogs to keep them on is the biggest challenge.

I’m a big fan of what was once dubbed jollying, or finding a way to engage the pet with fun. Do whatever it takes to get your pet to focus on fun. Pets can’t multitask. If they’re having a good time chasing a toy or working on a food dispensing product, they can’t be anxious at the same time. For dogs absolutely terrified of fireworks, this strategy may be challenging.

Set your pet up for success when you know fireworks are likely to be heard by escorting him into a room as far away from the noise as possible, such as a basement.

You can also use pheremones to help reduce anxiety in pets. For dogs, plug in an Adaptil diffuser, and for cats, use a Feliway diffuser. These are both knock offs of naturally occurring pheromones to help dogs and cats feel more comfortable in their own environments.

Close the windows (remember that pets’ sense of smell far exceeds ours; they may smell fireworks and certainly can hear them). Turn on a TV or the radio. A Sound Beginning, or other internet sites with music, help to lessen anxiety. One study suggests classical music is the most calming. Another recent study reports that Reggae relates to dogs the most. What’s most important is that your pet isn’t hearing fireworks.

Equally important is successfully distracting your pet. For dogs, you can stuff low-fat peanut butter or cream cheese into a sterilized bone (available at pet stores). You don’t want to offer a treat that your pet will scarf down in two seconds since the fireworks will continue for a while. Offer a mix of food and high-value treats in food dispensing toys, the kind that take time to deliver.

Some have suggested that offering play and/or treats is rewarding the pet’s fear. That’s not true. For starters, ideally the play and/or treats are offered before fear escalates. Also, as described, pets don’t feel fun and fear simultaneously; it’s one or the other.

Some pets prefer to be left alone—particularly cats—so hiding is the best way for them to deal with what’s going on. Again, this is where Adaptil and/or Feliway come in, for easing that anxiety just a tad more.

You can also try a chewable nutritional supplement called Solliquin, which features stress busters like L-Theanine, Magnolia officinalis, and phellodendron amurense (all big words, but they’re safe and can really work).

There are a wide variety of other “calming products,” from aromatherapy to other nutritional supplements. Most of these are without much basis in science, but can certainly work for individual pets.

Here’s what you should NEVER do if your pet is afraid of fireworks:

Do not tie pets up outside on a tether, or even keep them in yards without adult supervision. July 4 is the most common day for pets to run away. They hear the crashes and are so frantic that they jump over fences they probably never even tried to scale previously. Tethering a dog is never a good idea, but on the Fourth, some dogs are so desperate to escape, they choke themselves on chains or ropes in their attempt to get away.

Don’t administer drugs without veterinary input.

Never holler or scream or punish the fearful or terrified dog. All this will do is disrupt the human-animal bond, and increase your pet’s anxiety. Think about it: Afraid of spiders? If you’re locked in a room with 100 creepy crawlies, and a friend hollers at you for being afraid, how does that help?

The good news is there are steps you can still take to lower fear of the Fourth of July.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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