The firework season can be a stressful time for the nation’s pets with approximately half of the UK’s dog population thought to have a problem with loud noises. Signs that dogs find fireworks challenging include trembling, shaking, seeking owner support and cowering to hide behind furniture, barking excessively and trying to run away or to get to other areas of the home. Fears of loud noises can develop into sound sensitivities, which worsen over time.
Cats are masters of disguise, so it is harder to tell when they are unhappy, but although they are not thought to develop sensitivities to fireworks the loud bangs can startle them and they may want to hide behind or on top of furniture or try to run away. There is plenty that can be done to support pets during the firework season.
Prepare a dog den
Dog owners should prepare a den for their dog to hide in whilst the fireworks are going off. Ideally this should be prepared at least a couple of weeks in advance so the dog is accustomed to using it. It is advisable to create the den in an area where the dog already feels safe, such as behind a sofa or at the bottom of a cupboard. Covering the den helps to protect the dog from both the noise and flashing lights of fireworks.
Ensuring the dog can access the den at all times is important. Healthy treats and a favourite toy in the den will help the dog to use the space and learn that it is their safe spot. Products such as calming diffusers can be introduced to further enhance the den. Appeasing pheromones have a calming effect on dogs and in the case of a den will help communicate to the dog that it is a ‘safe’ place.
During the firework season cats should be kept indoors at night. This change in routine and confinement to the home can cause cats to become upset and show unwanted behaviours such as urine marking, inter-cat conflict and vertical scratching. Owners can make a few environmental changes which include providing several litter trays throughout the house, allowing access to elevated hiding places and providing boltholes.
If a cat hides in a corner or under a bed during the fireworks, advise owners to leave it alone and not to try to coax it out, as this refuge is where it feels most secure.
Masking the noise and light
Doors, windows and cat flaps should be secured and curtains drawn to reduce the noise of fireworks. Playing music or having the TV on will further mask the noise. The lights should be kept on so as not to enhance the flashes from the fireworks.
If an owner’s dog gets worried by a bang and goes to them for support, encourage them to offer genuine affection without being too sympathetic. As soon as a dog has calmed a little, customers should try to distract them into an easy game with a toy or into using their nose to find a treat. The toy should not be offered directly, instead the owner should focus their attention on the toy and see if the dog wants to engage. If a dog chooses to engage, it is more likely that the negative emotion will be replaced with a positive one. Finally, a pet should not be punished at any time for their behaviour.
Dogs should now be microchipped but cats ideally should be microchipped too, so that if they are frightened when they are out and bolt, they are able to be reunited with the owner.
Dog owners should exercise their dogs early in the evening before the fireworks start.
If a dog finds fireworks increasingly difficult to cope with then suggesting a visit to the vet can help with any further support the pet needs, such as medication or referral to a qualified behaviourist. A list of qualified behaviourists can be found on the Animal Behaviour and Training Council website (http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk).
Andrew Fullerton is the technical manager for behaviour at Ceva Animal Health. After qualifying from Bristol in 2007, Andrew spent 10 years in clinical practice before taking on his new role. He now works with behaviourists and vets all over the UK.