A Fear-Free Fourth
This Fourth of July, as always, Americans will be enjoying the sights and sounds of fireworks. While we love the pyrotechnics, we need to remember our midsummer spectacular is no holiday for many of our pets.
While we humans are oohing and aahing, too often our pets are frightened out of their wits. They’ll spend the holiday under the bed (or in the basement) cowering, shaking, drooling and seeking safety and comfort. And it’s not just on the Fourth of July: Both cats and dogs can panic at loud noises such as thunder and gunfire as well.
Our golden retriever, Shakira, wouldn’t flinch if a keg of gunpowder exploded next to him. Shop vacs, lawn mowers, grass trimmers, motorcycles, thunderstorms and fireworks elicit but a yawn. On the other hand, Quixote, our Yorkie/Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix, treats loud sounds as if the grim reaper were calling — and there’s no way she’s going to answer. When it comes to loud sounds, this dog is a scaredy-cat.
But loud noises such as fireworks can startle and distress many pets, with their supersensitive hearing. Scared pets have been known to jump out of apartment windows, leap over or dig under fences, or chew their skin until it’s raw. They may also bolt out an open door to become lost but never found.
Comforting scared pets seems the right thing to do, but it’s not. Don’t reward the fear. If you remain calm and don’t baby them, they’ll be closer to learning how to handle loud noises.
The best defense against Fourth of July problems is a good offense. Professional trainers and behaviorists start socializing dogs and making every potentially negative experience — such as fireworks and thunderstorms — into something rewarding. If a negative experience comes with tasty treats, then your pet is going to at least tolerate it, if not welcome it. This works best when started as a puppy, but don’t give up hope if your dog is already an adult: New behaviors can be learned.
One way to help your pet is to expose him or her to commercial recordings of thunderstorms or fireworks and play them at increasing volume. Play the recordings at low volume — recognizing how acute a pet’s hearing is — and give praise and treats. It’s a party! As the volume and duration are increased during subsequent sessions, give them really tasty treats so they have the expectation of a repeat treat. Initially, play the recording for five minutes, eventually leaving it on during daily activities as “normal” background noise.
Also, provide pets with safe hiding spaces inside your home during the holiday fireworks or a storm. Dogs and cats who are comfortable in crates can find them a good place to ride out the noise, especially if the crate is put in a quiet, darkened part of the house.
Of course, some pets are so unhinged by noise that veterinary-prescribed tranquilizers are needed to keep them calm. Remember to call well in advance of the holiday, and give the medications as recommended — they usually work best before the rockets’ red glare begins. And talk to your veterinarian about other calming techniques. Some alternative-care veterinarians may recommend the herbal product Rescue Remedy, while others can show you acupressure and massage techniques to keep pets more calm.
This Independence Day, while we enjoy our parades, picnics and fireworks, don’t forget your pet: He’s counting on you!
For pets who continue to become upset at loud noises, there are some products that may help.
Head halters such as the Gentle Leader head collar mimic how mother dogs control and comfort their young by putting pressure on the bridge of the nose or behind the ear. You can also try the Calming Cap, a product that fits over a pet’s head and eyes. The Gentle Leader head halter and Calming Cap are available through Premier products (888-640-8840).
The Anxiety Wrap (877-652-1266) applies gentle pressure to a dog’s body to focus his attention away from what’s scaring him. Advocates compare its use and effect to how whole-body pressure is used to calm overstimulated autistic children.