Fireworks phobia in pets is a perfectly natural response to an unknown threat. Like other basic fears that afflict all animals, this instinctive response is hard-wired into their brains.
Without it they might run around in inclement weather and get themselves struck by lightning. New Year's Eve in Miami might even mean a bullet in their brain when firearms join the fireworks at the stroke of midnight (and that goes for the rest of us too!). So do you blame them for getting all riled up when the pyrotechnics fly?
In some cases, however, the instinctive response is way out of proportion to the threat. After all, most pets are indoors or otherwise well-covered during a storm or fireworks display. It's the equivalent of huddling under a rock or hiding in a safe cave. Threat gone. Relaxation should ensue.
Most pets (mostly dogs, I'll allow) hide under beds, hang out in their crates or sidle up to their favorite person during a storm. This level of fear is typical. But others demonstrate an astounding degree of anxiety.
I’ve known them to jump out of balconies, escape their yards to flee across six-lane highways, break their teeth trying to get out of their crates, and bloody their paws attempting to escape through locked windows and doors.
For these severe cases, thunderstorms (or fireworks, as the case may be) present a very real threat to the health, well-being and ultimate survival of the afflicted dog - not to mention the sanity of the entire household.
Veterinarians have a serious challenge ahead of them when trying to alleviate the more severe symptoms of this phobia. Imagine sedating your pet every time you leave the house - just in case it storms - or having to board your dog during the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve because your neighborhood is littered with young revelers.
Dr. Soraya Diaz is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist practicing at Coral Springs Animal Medical Center here in South Florida. Her insight as a canine and feline behavior specialist reveals that noise phobia is more common than you might think. She urges caution in ignoring mild signs like shivering under beds or hiding in the bathtub, noting that the severely fearful pets she sees were mildly affected at one time and progressed into severe phobia with each passing season.
As she emphatically asserts, "[Noise phobia is] horrible. Storms come on fast and bombard our pets with stimulation sixty times a year or more. [Fireworks exert the same effect.] Because we don’t really know which pets will remain static [in their response to noise] and which will progress to severe anxiety [and may even evolve into year-round separation anxiety] … it’s very important they all get treated as early on as possible.”
To that end, consider the following therapies and enlist your local vet’s help in choosing the right combination of approaches:
1. Behavior modification: Using fireworks CDs, played at an increasing volume while providing a positive stimulus like petting and treats, is a great place to start for the vast majority of pets. Try to find a CD with sounds recorded in your area for maximum realism. (Also, see my post on veterinary behaviorists.)
2. Natural therapies: Lavender oil (recently found to reduce car anxiety in dogs), ProQuiet (a tryptophan syrup), and canine pheromone sprays can be helpful for the mildly affected.
3. Pharmaceutical intervention: The most common approach for severe cases is also the one most fraught with complications. Usually, this method is reserved for our most anxious and self-destructive patients. Creative combinations of anti-anxiety drugs, like Xanax, with Prozac-like drugs, like Clomicalm, seem to help many of our most serious sufferers.
4. Keeping pets in their crates or in otherwise sheltered areas: This trick should help. Placing your pet in a safe place during loud displays – natural or otherwise – where it cannot get hurt, is the best way to protect your pet, and may help him to feel less threatened. Combining this with playing the TV or radio at increasing volumes early on in the evening should help mask the sounds. (I recommend playing one of the early Star Wars movies, or another loud, shoot-em-up sci-fi classic to cover up the sounds.)
Describing the symptoms of noise phobia to your vet should elicit more than just sympathy. Ask about the above-mentioned therapies and how best to implement them.
Have a happy, and SAFE, New Year!
Dr. Patty Khuly