For reasons that aren’t clear, in Boston and across the country, fireworks complaints to police have skyrocketed. And those loud booms are taking a toll on a group that is ill-equipped to understand what’s going on: pets.
“It breaks my heart because you can’t really explain what’s happening,” said Dorchester resident Michalla Bishop, who has been trying to comfort Esme, her 11-year-old mutt.
Since the last week of May, when fireworks began tormenting residents day and night, Esme has experienced symptoms of anxiety — shaking, drooling, hiding — whenever she hears the crackle of fireworks. It’s gotten to the point, Bishop said, where Esme needs sedatives to calm down and sleep.
“It’s been horrible, she literally has a panic attack when she hears the fireworks,” she said.
“It’s terrible for the pets. It’s terrible for everybody,” said Dr. Terri Bright, the lead behaviorist at MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.
Bright lives in Jamaica Plain, where fireworks have run rampant, with her dog Ribbon, an American bully mix. By understanding dogs’ sensitivities and distracting them, Bright has successfully distracted Ribbon from being affected by the noise.
Here are five tips Bright offered for dog (or cat) owners struggling with fireworks:
Play white noise to muffle outside sounds
“Dogs have hearing that is four times more sensitive than ours. They hear at about the same frequency, but it sounds so much louder.
“Keep your windows closed. Use a fan, air conditioner, or white noise machine and really crank it. If you don’t have a white noise machine, you could use a YouTube channel called ‘Celestial Sounds’ or an app called ‘Simply Noise’.
“This masks some of the sound and takes up some of the hearing in your brain instead of the ‘boom, boom, boom.' Use it 24/7.”
Let your dog exercise and run around frequently
“Exercise is good for dogs. It releases endorphins and helps them sleep better, but it’s not a cure for a [noise] phobia. It could potentially help them rest better, but it’s not a cure. Don’t count on it — every dog needs good aerobic exercise. They need to be able to run, and not just on a leash.”
Have new treats and toys on hand to distract your dog
“I always have special things that my dog hasn’t seen in the house. She has a special bone, or a two-dollar toy that she hasn’t seen before. I also take a handful of kibble for her to find, and scatter it around the house.
“It has to be done at the moment the dog hears something. There’s that sound — here’s a bone. You can’t wait until a dog’s heart is pounding and they’re having fight-or-flight reactions.
“My dog and I have a deal where if she hears something, I say ‘What’s that?’ and she gets a cookie. I’m not talking about a Milk-Bone biscuit, I’m talking about pepperoni, liver, something gross. If you start early, the dog has a mild reaction.”
Make sure collars and harnesses are secure
“It’s so important to make sure your dog can’t escape your yard, a collar, or a harness. I always think of this story: a friend of mine had a dog in high school, and it ran away from his truck while he was watching fireworks. He never saw the dog again.
“A dog’s intention is to escape — ‘The scary noise is where I am, I need to get away.’ Make absolutely sure collars, harnesses, gates, and windows are completely secure. Even though the dog loves you, they will try to escape.”
Give your dog sedatives or medication before panic attacks
“I work with veterinarians to get dogs the right meds, and they tend to prescribe things like sedatives. If you know your dog will have panic attacks, arrange with your vet now.
“Give dogs sedatives before they’re going to get upset. Once they’re in the panic mode, with eyes popping out of their head, their heart racing, you would have to give them more drugs to calm them down.
“Every dog is different [with doses]. Give them the drug, stay with your dog for the first time, and see how they react. One dose may knock them out for eight hours, other drugs may not have the same effect.”
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.