Fireworks can invoke terror in even the calmest of dogs, cats and small pets, leaving many owners dreading the Autumn months during which neighbourhoods can be filled with loud bangs and bright flashes.
Evolution has hard-wired our pets with incredible survival instincts, and loud unexpected noises can easily trigger a fight-or-flight response. A pet's reaction to loud noises is usually determined by a combination of their species, genetics and past experiences.
Dogs are renowned for having an incredible sense of smell, and their hearing is remarkable too. Dogs can detect significantly higher frequencies than humans, and can hear sounds that are four times further away than we can. A dog’s acute sense of hearing means that loud noises that are tolerable to us are often uncomfortable and unpleasant to them, sometimes even terrifying.
Cats are able to hear at even higher frequencies ranges than dogs, detecting sounds up to up to 64 kHz, which is 1.6 octaves above the range of a human, and even 1 octave above the range of a dog.
When it comes to our small furry pets, hearing is often their most vital sense. Their hearing is so advanced that in some species, such as gerbils, they are able to sense the slightest motion nearby, or hear a sound as subtle as the flapping of an owl’s wings.
Some pets will have no issues with the sound, sight or smell of fireworks, and often the reason behind the development of a dramatic fear is unknown to owners and can seem out of the blue.
Even those pets who do not appear to be frightened by naturally occurring loud noises, such as thunder, can be terrified by artificial sounds such as those created by fireworks. This is likely due to the fact that fireworks are closer to the ground, more vibrant, and are accompanied by sudden booms, flashes and burning smells.
Noise aversion in dogs can sometimes be attributed to breed. Dogs bred to work alongside hunting guns, such as Spaniels and Labrador Retrievers, are genetically less likely to be perturbed by the loud bangs produced by fireworks, while dogs who are extremely sensitive to their environments, such as Border Collies, are more likely to have issues. However, all dogs are individuals, and previous experiences, age and general temperament will also have plenty of impact on their reactions.
The risk of a fear of fireworks tends to increase with age in dogs, likely due to how they perceive sound. Older dogs first lose the ability to detect higher frequency sounds, which give important location cues. The inability to locate sounds can increase the severity of stress for a dog. They are not to know that the next firework is not going to go off from their living room!
Evolution has trained most animals, including dogs, that avoiding a perceived threat is worth it for overall survival, even if, as in the case of fireworks, the threat doesn’t end up being real. From a biological perspective, it pays to err on the side of being fearful and escaping the danger, even when it’s not necessary.
While we, as humans, expect to see and hear fireworks at certain times of the year, our pets are unable to predict these events. This means that firework displays and Halloween events are completely unexpected by animals, and this unpredictability can lead to further fear in the weeks following such events, as the pet is not to know that there won't be more fireworks for another period of time.
Some owners spend a few hours preparing for events when fireworks are likely to be in the vicinity, whereas others are forced by their pets' fears to spend weeks or months preparing, in an effort to prevent their pet from being scared.
One month before fireworks:
Both dogs and cats can benefit from counter conditioning, a concept which aims to build up a positive view of a negative experience by changing the pet's emotional response, feelings or attitude toward the stimulus, which can be worked on over as long of a period of time as is required by the individual pet until the desired response is achieved. When it comes to counter conditioning, or desensitising, a pet to fireworks, this is best started at least one month in advance of the anticipated cause of fear. The main thing to remember with counter conditioning to fireworks, is that in many dogs the fear has developed over years, and will not be forgotten over the course of a few days.
To begin the counter conditioning process, you must know what truly motivates your dog. For many dogs, delicious treats will be the chosen reward, for others a toy such as a tennis ball may be more appropriate. Training is primarily aimed at exposing the pet to gradually more intense levels of the stimuli while it remains relaxed, pairing a specific favourite reward with each training session to help the pet to develop a positive and enjoyable association with the stimulus.
Using a recording of fireworks (there are many videos on YouTube specifically aimed at counter conditioning for fireworks), start with the noise at a volume that does not elicit any distress. This initial sound level may sometimes be barely audible to the human ear. To reproduce a sound similar to the actual stimuli, it may be helpful to play the same video using multiple devices around the room, or with the use of a 'surround-sound' system. Begin playing the recording or producing the appropriate sounds at a low volume. If your dog reacts, ignore the reaction until your pet is settled, after which it can be given a treat. Once the dog has settled, try again with a much lower volume of the stimulus. After every few bangs, give a special treat, play with the dog, or initiate some particularly pleasurable activity.
Each new session should be started with the volume at a slightly higher level than the previous, but not at a level high enough to evoke a fear response. If the pet reacts to the sound, step back a few volume levels and build up slowly again. Initially this will need to be repeated quite frequently, until the pet is relaxed around the noise at a full and realistic intensity to real fireworks, and with time this can be repeated less often, with reinforcements shortly before fireworks are expected.
One week before fireworks:
Check where and when fireworks displays are being held in your local area, so that you know when to expect fireworks. Also ask your neighbours to let you know if they are planning any unofficial displays of their own to help you prepare.
Consider whether your pet may be more content staying at the home of a friend or relative, if you are expecting a large scale fireworks display close to your home.
Ensure that your pet's microchip details are up to date and that they are wearing a collar and ID tag with your details, in case they are frightened by fireworks and manage to escape. Your vet should be happy to scan your dog's microchip for you and check which details are recorded against the microchip.
Make a safe den for your dog or cat to retreat to if they feel scared. Make sure to fill it with their favourite blankets, toys, and whatever else will make them feel comfortable. For dogs who already use a crate to sleep in, a simple cover can make this a much more attractive place to hide from the fireworks. This den should ideally be in a room where curtains can be drawn and a TV or radio can be used to help drown out the noise from fireworks.
Consider using a herbal remedy to ease your pet's anxiety, or speaking to your vet regarding medications which may be suitable for extreme cases. Staff at Pet Connection are always happy to advise on the selection of calming remedies we have available, helping you to decide which will be ideal for your individual pet.
A few hours before fireworks:
Before dusk, take your dog for a long walk. For particularly nervous dogs, it may also be beneficial to feed them before dusk too, as they may be too overwhelmed to enjoy their meal once the fireworks begin. If possible, it can be beneficial to make these changes to their routine in the few days prior to fireworks so as not to upset them.
Prepare long lasting snacks and chew toys for your dog or cat to enjoy as the evening passes, Kong Classic toys and LickiMats can be frozen with their contents to create a delicious distraction.
Ensure that cats are taken indoors before darkness sets in. If your cat does not like to come into your home early in the day, do not let them outside on any day when you are expecting fireworks in the vicinity. Loud noises and strange scents can easily cause a cat to become disorientated or act erratically, increasing their chances of not finding their way home or being involved in a road traffic accident.
Small pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs should be brought into your home and kept in a quiet room, with curtains closed to prevent frights from the flashes of fireworks. Provision of hides or cardboard boxes stuffed with hay will help to protect your pet by dampening the sound when your pet seeks shelter. Under no circumstances should small furries be allowed to stay in outdoor hutches or runs when fireworks are likely to be visible or audible from your home.
If you are questioning whether or not you should comfort your pet when they are experiencing fear, it is important to remember the following. Fear is an emotion, and you cannot reinforce an emotion. It is either there or it isn’t. You can only reinforce a chosen behaviour. While it is not possible to reinforce the emotion of fear by giving comfort to a frightened pet (rewarding or encouraging the emotion will not make it stronger or more likely to occur), it’s certainly possible to plant the idea that fear is the correct response to something. With this in mind, you should aim to make your pet as comfortable as possible until the stimuli causing their fear has passed, and if they seek comfort from you then it is certainly fine to provide it, but you must ensure that the pet does not feel that you are also scared of the fireworks. If your dog can see that fireworks have no effect on you, this may help decrease their anxiety.
If your pet decides to take refuge throughout the house, such as under a bed, keep an eye on where they are to avoid shutting them in and cutting them off from other areas of the house they may need to access. Don’t confine your dog or cat to one room as they may hurt themselves trying to get out, particularly if they become stressed.
Anxiety often makes dogs pant more than they usually would, so they can more easily become dehydrated. Ensure that they always have a supply of fresh water.
Keeping your windows closed can help muffle loud noises and prevents your pet from escaping if their flight instinct kicks in and they attempt to flee. Close any curtains or blinds to further soundproof your home and shut out bright flashes and sparks that can scare pets. If you have a cat flap, don't forget to lock it to prevent your cat from getting outside.
Turning on the radio or TV not only helps mask the loud bangs and crackles of fireworks, but also provides a familiar noise to help distract your pet.
If your dog absolutely needs to go outside to the bathroom during fireworks, ensure that they are wearing a snugly fitted collar or lead. A frightened animal can easily scale a wall or fence which they wouldn't consider climbing in a normal situation.
Avoid leaving your pet alone during such potentially upsetting events. If you do have to leave the house, don’t get angry with your pet if you find they have been destructive or toileted on your return.