Managing Fireworks Season this year

Fireworks Season in the UK usually lasts from the last week in October (for the Halloween celebrations) through to the second week in November (after the 5th November). However, we are seeing this period expand, and major displays are not uncommon throughout November.fireworks image

In addition, fireworks are now frequently let off for New Year’s celebrations, Christmas, weddings, Chinese New Year, historical dates and Royal Jubilees, birthdays and even funerals. As a result, if you have a dog or a cat who suffers from a phobia or a fear of fireworks, there is no part of the year that can be guaranteed as safe.

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Phobias vs Fears

A phobia is defined as an exaggerated fear response that is disproportional to the stimulus intensity. So, a dog who is afraid of fireworks will be unhappy at a distant display, afraid of one closer, and terrified of one that is overhead. On the other hand, a dog with a phobia will be equally terrified by all three – their response is always at the maximum. One useful test may be to show a recording, or a broadcast, of a fireworks display on the television with the volume turned down low – the phobic patient will usually start to panic straight away, while the fearful one will become increasingly distressed as the volume increases.

A dog or a cat with a true phobia therefore needs attention from a professional animal behaviourist – if you think your pet is in this category, call us and we’ll refer you to a suitable expert.

A dog or cat with a fear or fireworks, on the other hand, even if it is severe, can often be managed with a combination of good planning, appropriate behaviour, and suitable medical interventions.

Dealing with a fear of fireworks

There are a number of different approaches, but they all fall into one of two categories – managing the situation, or treating the underlying problem. Obviously, treatment is preferable, but may take weeks or months, and may not be completely effective immediately. Therefore, management (using behavioural techniques, calming products or medication) is often necessary.

Treatment – Desensitisation Therapy

The majority of dogs and cats who are afraid of fireworks are afraid of the noise (loud unexpected explosions). The bright lights and flashes don’t help, but are rarely the primary problem. The key for desensitisation therapy is to use a CD, DVD or playlist (nowadays available in a number of formats, including Apple’s .aac and the more common .mp3) to gradually habituate the dog or cat to the sounds. Initially, the soundtrack (containing a wide variety of firework and other noises) is played to the pet at minimum volume; then, over weeks and months, the volume is gradually increased as they learn to tolerate it.

Management – Calming Products

There is a wide range of calming products on the market that claim to reduce anxiety and help manage fearful situations. However, for most there is no scientific evidence that they do anything at all.

The two exceptions are the pheromone products Adaptil for dogs and Feliway for cats, and the casein product Zylkene – for which the evidence of effectiveness is now very good.

Adaptil diffusion products (collars, sprays and the household diffuser, but NOT the Express tablets) contain a purified form of the pheromone, or chemical messenger, that a bitch releases to calm her litter. Feliway contains Feline Facial Pheromone that is equally reassuring to cats (although Feliway Friends is slightly different). These are highly effective, but ideally need to be in use for up to a month before they reach their maximum effect. Remember too that they do run out and need to be replaced or replenished periodically (usually about every four weeks).

Casein, found in Zylkene capsules is a natural milk protein. However, in the dog’s or cat’s body it is converted into a benzodiazepine molecule that has similar effects to Valium, promoting calmness and minimising fear. Again, a medication period of 1-2 weeks before the stressful night is advisable, but is not absolutely essential.

Management – Behavioural Techniques

For all animals, the provision of a safe hiding place or nest is really important, that they can use to escape to when fireworks start.

For dogs, there has been a great deal of dispute over whether you should fuss and reassure them or not when they are afraid – in general, distraction with food and a moderate (but not excessive) amount of attention is probably beneficial, as long as you don’t display any signs of anxiety or fear yourself, as that will reinforce the idea in your dog’s mind that fireworks are something to be scared of. As far as possible, maintain the normal routine, and encourage (but NEVER force) your dog to follow it. Always be aware as well that frightened dogs are more likely to snap or bite, so keep yourself safe.

Management – Medication

In severe cases, or if all else fails, our vets can prescribe certain human medications to chemically suppress anxiety and fear. This is not ideal, but is occasionally necessary, and is highly effective in the short term – although there are severe side effects if they are used for a prolonged period.

If your pet is afraid of fireworks, make an appointment to see us to discuss the options as early as possible before Fireworks Season begins.

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