Maybe you’ve already heard the thunderous booms and smelled sulphur in the air. Yep, it’s summer in New England, and that means fireworks will be happening, not just the week of the Fourth of July, but pretty much as long as it’s warm out.
Here’s the thing: Fireworks — both the big displays and the less-legal “impromptu” celebrations in backyards — can be extremely stressful for pets, especially dogs. The Fourth of July is a peak time for runaway dogs, who often take off when startled by the loud explosions.
Not surprisingly, cats aren’t the biggest fans of fireworks, either, and the noise can send them scurrying to hide in spots you didn’t even know existed in your home, not to be found for days.
We asked the experts if there is anything we can do to help them cope.
What kind of reactions can you expect from your animals?
“What people will see is that their animal starts showing signs of anxiety. That can manifest in a variety of different ways depending on the animal, but usually it is more dog related than cat,” explains Dr. Mark Verdino, senior vice president and chief of veterinary staff at North Shore Animal League America. “In dogs, they start panting, hyper-salivating, trembling. They do go hide, as well, to some degree. The owners will report the dog runs into a bathtub or runs into their crate. They tend to go to what they call safe harbors or places where they’re comfortable. And it can manifest as more severe anxiety in some cases where an owner might try to go calm their dog and get bit.”
“Even if an animal is out in a fenced yard and fireworks come out of nowhere, a scared animal can even climb a fence, which may be something they don’t do on a regular day,” says Michel Gross, volunteer coordinator for Buddy Dog Humane Society in Sudbury. “But being that panicked, it can cause a behavior that takes the owner by surprise.”
So your pets freak out. Now what?
If you’re a new pet owner, meaning this is your first time having an animal around fireworks, it’s best to take a step back and observe how the pet reacts, but don’t give it a front-row seat either.
“I just recommend you observe and see if there’s any issues, and obviously avoiding close proximity to fireworks,” Verdino explains. “Dogs in particular, even just little things like jumping jacks or firecrackers or even sparklers, dogs don’t know what they are, and they may try to catch them and bite them and do things, and they can cause themselves burns or other trauma.”
And keep your animals safe by keeping them inside, says Gross. “We really encourage people to keep their animals in if they know there’s going to be fireworks and just be vigilant if you’re out walking your dog — a loud noise can cause a panicked dog to flee and maybe jerk the leash out of somebody’s hand.”
Create a safe space for your furry friends
Dog and cat people know that their companions have comfortable places they like to be. Whether under the bed or in the closet, make sure your pets have access to a hiding place and that it’s extra comfortable for them during fireworks.
“It could be their bed. It could be a crate. It could be a bedroom. You want to make sure that your dog has access to recoil to that place if they choose so,” Verdino says.
And while your animal being stressed may cause you stress, let it go, says Verdino. “You don’t want it where, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s anxious. I don’t want them to poop,’ so you lock him out of the places where the animal is needing to go, and you’re exacerbating the problem.”
Verdino adds, “If the symptoms or signs are fairly mild, that may be all you need to do until it passes.”
What if that’s not enough to keep them calm?
For some animals, who may have a noise phobia or have exhibited signs of stress with loud sounds in the past, more aggressive calming techniques may be necessary.
One thing many experts recommend are ThunderShirts, which are available for dogs and cats at pet stores and online.
“The effect of it is like swaddling a baby. It’s kind of like a calming effect on the body. It produces pheromones and other hormones in the body that have a calming effect,” says Verdino. “That in and of itself is sometimes enough to do the trick. A good thing about that is you don’t have to wait for something to kick in. It’s cheap and easy.”
Verdino points out that the swaddling shirt doesn’t have any of the side effects medication might have. “It’s nonpharmacological, and you can put it on as often or not as you see fit. And those are used for storm phobias. They’re used for fireworks. Some people will use them when they’re having company over, whatever it is,” he explains.
For cats, a diffuser or spray called Feliway, which is also available at pet stores and online, releases a pheromone that is a calming scent for cats (most humans can’t smell it). It works like a plug-in diffuser, or a home spray.
Gross is a fan and uses it at the shelter. “It’s one of those things that can’t hurt; it might help. Some don’t seem to respond well to it and some cats respond really well to it. So it’s certainly something worth trying.”
For both cats and dogs, some familiar noise can provide a distraction from loud booms. Also just having some background noise can help drown out the loud noise. So if you’ve got the TV on, that can help drown out some of the loud noise from outside.
Some animals will need extra support
If they’re upset for days — hiding, pacing, refusing to go outside or use a litter box — after fireworks or a thunderstorm, as a last resort, Verdino suggests talking to your vet about medication.
“I have no relationship to the company that puts it out, but there’s a product on the market that’s called SILEO, which is an FDA-approved product for noise phobia,” he says. “It’s like a paste. You kind of squirt into their mouth, and it has a medication in it that is shown to avert the phobic behavior when they have a noise phobia. It is basically a sedative drug, but it’s . . . very, very low.”
Consider your pet’s personality
Of course, you know your pet and probably have a pretty good idea of how it’ll react to fireworks. Don’t take a skittish dog to a cookout that might have kids waving sparklers, and even if your cat goes out during the day, bring it in at night during fireworks season.
Tanya Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.