Fourth of July and Fireworks

It’s not that dogs aren’t patriotic, but many dogs, and also some cats are terrified of the loud and sudden bangs we call fireworks. It’s actually adaptive to be hard-wired to be afraid of sudden loud sounds. We jump at such surprising sounds, and we might also run the other way or hide if we didn’t understand what the fireworks are all about. No wonder so much pets are terrified of fireworks.

Often pets can be made far less afraid using training methods which experts refer to as desensitization and counterconditioning.

To do that, you need time – a few weeks even more, depending on the individual dog. Use YouTube or audio recording of fireworks. Play the sounds at a very low level, all while distracting the dog or cat with play/fun, or food (far from the speakers, at first). Remember, your pets’ hearing is likely far better than yours. The idea is that your dog is so distracted, the low-level fireworks sounds are no longer a concern. And very gradually, as you pump up the volume, the pet associates the sounds of fireworks with something fun, like play or food.

The only hitch is that some pets will be too afraid to learn anything. There are some easy ways to potentially lower that fear level a least a notch.

That’s important, because if afraid, it’s nearly impossible to learn. Think about it. Let’s say, I’m about to push you out a window from the 40th floor, you are just hanging on by your suspenders – and now I ask you to do work on your tax returns. When that afraid, it’s impossible to learn or problem solve – except, hopefully, to solve the problem of not plummeting 40 stories!

One easy tool to ratchet down fear a notch or two are pheromones. For dogs, plug in an Adaptil diffuser, and for cats, use a Feliway Classic. Each is a copy (analogue) of naturally occurring pheromones to help dogs and cats feel more comfortable in their own environments.

Any product or drug can be used with pheromone therapy. Here are two nutraceuticals:

Solliquin: L-theanine, an amino acid found naturally in green tea which stimulates the production of alpha brain waves, supporting mental awareness and lower anxiety.

Zentrol (formerly named Harmonease): A non-sedating, non-pharmaceutical formulation for natural stress management and alleviation of fear behaviors in dogs associated with fireworks, boarding, traveling, separation anxiety, etc.

If your pet’s terror level is high, or one might say in the “red zone,” which can include shaking, excessive salivating, becoming incontinent, decreased appetite, and/or described as “inconsolable,” contact your veterinarian and ask about SILEO (dexmedetomidine gel). This oromucosal gel (which means it is applied to the pet’s gums) is quick-acting, and it’s made for when there’s no time for successful behavior modification (close to July 4 or when the fireworks have begun). It takes around 30 minutes to an hour for SILEO to take full effect, and it typically lasts two to three hours. If the noise continues, and the behavioral changes recur, further doses can be given at intervals of two hours, for up to a total of five times during each noise event as needed.

While SILEO is effective in most dogs and safe, it is still a drug, and it is not for all dogs. It may make your pup a bit drowsy, but that’s preferable to being terrified, and it works to diminish fear and anxiety. Speak with your veterinarian. (SILEO is not labeled for cats).

Here’s what you should NEVER do:

  • NEVER tie up a dog outside on a tether, or even keep a dog in a yard around July Fourth without adult supervision. Fearful or terrified dogs may get out (even if you think that is not possible). And tethered dogs may panic and even choke themselves, as they desperately attempt to get away from the sounds of fireworks.
  • NEVER holler at or scream at or punish the fearful or terrified dog. All this will do is disrupt the human-animal bond and increase your pet’s anxiety. Think about it: Afraid of snakes? If you’re locked in a room with 100 snakes, and a friend screams at you for being afraid, how does that help?
  • NEVER use drugs without input from a veterinary professional. Drugs which solely make pets sleepy, like Benadryl or acepromazine, never touch the fear the pet is feeling. So now the pet is sleepy and terrified which is arguably inhumane.
    Victoria Stilwell offers an entire program with firework sounds. A reasonably new option, and a high-tech one is with Through a Dog's Ear or Through a Cat's Ear is icalmpet (new 4.0 edition now available).

For some dogs, what might work is to combine several of the products, such as pheromones with nutritional supplements – and “jollying.” Take your pet to the basement, or the most secluded room in your home. Pump up that music, like classical music, or even specially produced music from A Sound Beginning or other sites with music to help lessen anxiety of worried dogs. Also, try to distract your dog or cat with play. Don’t worry, you’re not rewarding your pet’s fear; instead you are readjusting from fearful mode into a fun play mode.
Thundershirt, Storm Defender, Anxiety Wrap: Each of these options provides something for the dog to wear which has a potentially calming effect:
Thundershirt: A vest that applies gentle, constant pressure, similar to swaddling an infant – the original product created to lower anxiety, originally created for dogs fearful of storms.
Storm Defender: With its special lining, around your dog may bring relief to your nervous pet.
Anxiety Wrap; Uses acupressure and gentle, maintained pressure to relieve stress and end fear in dogs.
Since sound is the most significant issue regarding fireworks, ear plugs for dogs remain a consideration. However, convincing the dog may be another matter.
Number one message: Speak to a professional who may tailor the right solution for your individual dog.

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is


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