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Dear Dr. Warford: My dog HATES Fireworks and Thunderstorms: What Should I do? 4th of July and Summer Thunderstorm Safety Tips

1 Jul

It happens every year. You know it’s coming. If summer thunderstorms and 4th of July fireworks are stressful for your pet, you probably don’t look forward to the following unavoidable events:

  • Random, unpredictable, intermittent, unapproved fireworks by your wonderful neighbors starting the week before
  • Large sustained pre-planned firework events in nearly every neighborhood in America
  • Loud and crowded cookouts with kids and greasy foods and alcohol and no one really supervising any of it
  • Sporadic, unpredictable thunderstorms

While 4th of July celebrations may be much-anticipated events for us (generally because we aren’t at work), it’s not necessarily a day of fun for our pets, especially without the right precautions. With just a bit of pre-planning, you can make this holiday a little less stressful and much more safe for your pet.

First (and foremost): If you take nothing else from this post, please read and absorb this as it is THE most important point:

  • Don’t take your pet to fireworks displays or events.
  • Though you may think your dog will enjoy the festivities, many dogs are frightened by the crowds and the noise.
  • Some will even panic, try to escape, and can injure themselves.
  • Add in the likely sweltering heat and unattended food items that often accompany these festivities, and the potential dangers far outweigh the potential fun.
  • Leave your pets at home where they are safe and comfortable.
  • Make sure your pet is wearing identification tags, and preferably, in addition, have your pet microchipped.

Also keep in mind:

  • Use caution when having parties or cookouts when you have pets.
  • Many human foods (such as onions, garlic, macadamia nuts, grapes, and raisins) are toxic to animals.
  • In addition, most pets who are used to a consistent diet can have extreme, potentially life-threatening, gastrointestinal upset when given scraps and grill droppings, esp with high fatty/greasy foods. This can result in days, if not weeks, of vomiting and diarrhea, which could result in the need for hospitalization and aggressive IV fluid treatment to resolve.
  • Alcoholic drinks can also be a major threat as many may taste sweet but ingestion can result in difficulty breathing, coma, and even death. Mix that in with trash items that can cause more vomiting and diarrhea, and obstructions, and you have some pretty serious potential problems.
  • Insect repellents, citronella candles, sunscreen, glow jewelry, and lighter fluid: We use them all the time but we don’t generally think of eating them. Our pets might. These are toxic to pets and may result in neurological problems, seizures, breathing problems, pneumonia, as well as severe gastrointestinal upset, and obstruction, requiring hospitalization and even surgery to correct.
  • Make sure your pet is confined or being monitored during these events.  When large numbers of children, people, alcohol and outdoor food mix, there is generally always an opportunity for your dog to find things lying around that are tasty and NOT good for them. And you may never notice until the symptoms occur much later in the day or week.

What to do if you have a nervous noise-phobic dog, or you aren’t sure, and the 4th of July is approaching?

  • Don’t take your pet out to a celebration
  • Don’t leave your pet unattended in a nonsecure area of the house or outside
  • If your pet is crate-trained, prepare the crate for your pet to retreat into if she wants.  Covering it with a large blanket may create an even safer feeling environment for your dog. If your dog is not acclimated to crates or does not like being in crates, it is obviously not a good option to consider forced crating in this situation, as that will only worsen her anxiety and chance for injury if she panics and tries to escape. In these cases, it’s best to help your pet find a quiet, dark, enclosed area (under blankets, in a closet or corner) in which to retreat.
  • Be aware of the signs of noise phobia: pacing, panting, drooling, vocalizing, trembling, hiding (esp cats), seeking out excessive owner contact, dilated pupils, panic or destructive escape behaviors.  These behaviors will often worsen with repeated exposure if not addressed. 
  • This is a typical expression you may see in a fearful, noise-phobic dog during an event.

If you notice any of these behaviors, don’t reinforce it accidentally.

  • This is one of the most common mistakes we make when addressing these problems in our pets.
  • You want to stay calm and comforting for your dog, but giving her excessive attention (petting, repeatedly saying “it’s OK”) while your dog is displaying these phobic behaviors will likely serve to reinforce the anxiety in your pet.
  • Provide safe, quiet areas for your pet to retreat to but try not to reinforce the fear response with too much attention. Instead, try to allow your pet to find a safe area to settle into on her own. Most dogs will prefer quiet, enclosed, familiar, dark spaces.
  • Calm, soothing, quiet music may be helpful for both you and your pet during these episodes and may help cover up the offending noises outside.
  • Some dogs prefer to hide under blankets or may benefit from the anxiety body wraps that are marketed for these types of situations. One such brand is the Thundershirt and I have heard great reviews about it from my clients.
  • Consider herbal calming remedies such as Rescue Remedy, but make sure they are labeled for the specific type of pet you have in mind and follow the label’s dosing instructions.
  • A few drops of lavender oil on a collar or bandana may also be soothing.
  • There are also massage techniques, TTouch in particular, that can be helpful.
  • Pheromones called D.A.P, for dogs, or Feliway, for cats, which come as sprays and collars, are also good natural calming agent adjuncts. These can be found at most major pet stores or on-line.
  • Also, check with your vet that none of these items would be contraindicated for your pet’s health or react with any current medications your pet may be receiving prior to administering them.
  • Additionally, if you know an event is coming (like a thunderstorm or fireworks display), make sure your dog gets her regular dose of exercise and if possible, a bit more, prior to the event, as this will help tire her out both mentally and physically. This can be of benefit in two ways: it can results in her not being as responsive to the event due to being tired.  Also, exercise increases her natural serotonin levels which can help with relaxation.

What are the long-term solutions?

  • Behavior modification, under the supervision of a trainer or veterinary behaviorist, is something you can discuss. This is a slow process with many different approaches.  Each case is individual, so it must be addressed one on one and is too complicated and personalized to properly address in this post. It can be very rewarding, with dedication, patience, and time, but it is not something you can consider when your pet is in the middle of an anxiety causing event. There is no guarantee a phobic dog can be “cured”, but generally with time and understanding, it can become manageable with the right awareness and tools, which involves a lengthy personalized training process as well as possibly medications that can hopefully be tapered over time as the retraining occurs.  This is something to consider moving forward to hopefully make future events less stressful for everyone.
  • Medication is often used both on a long-term daily basis and an as needed basis for dogs with anxiety. You should discuss with your veterinarian whether they think an anti-anxiety medication may be helpful for your pet. Many pet owners find having short-term anti-anxiety medications on hand for their pets, for use around the fourth of July and during storms, is extremely helpful. Your vet will have to perform and an exam and discuss all options with you prior to prescribing these for your pet.  If you are wondering if it could be a good option for your pet, call and discuss it with your vet NOW, before you or your pet are in an urgent situation, most likely when your vet will be closed. You also want to give your vet time to review your pet’s case and prescribe the proper medication. Calling them an hour before they close on July 3rd, when they will likely be closed on the 4th, is not a very pro-active option, or at least not likely to ensure you will receive a response in time.
  • When using any anti-anxiety remedies, they must be given prior to the stressful event in order to take full effect. If they are not given until the pet is already fully stressed out, the body’s hormones will override the benefits of the medications.  As a result, they will not have nearly the effect of relieving the anxiety episodes as they would if first given when the pet is still calm. If you know fireworks are scheduled for 7pm, for example, you’ll want to begin preparing an area for your dog and using any calming agents early in the afternoon.

Finally, remember to remain calm yourself. Pets do pick up on our emotions and a stressed owner will not be able to calm a stressed pet. Try to remain as calm, steady, and as in control as possible. Getting upset at your pet for her behavior will only make it worse, but remember, do not inadvertently reward the behavior with excessive coddling either. Try to help your pet find a way to self soothe by finding a safe secure location, and put on quiet music or television as a distraction, and wait it out until the stressful event has passed.

Hopefully these tips can help you and your pet have a safe happy 4th of July and summer thunderstorm season. If you live in DC or the DC Metro area of Maryland, and would like help addressing any of these phobia issues with your pet, check out: Dr. Warford’s behavior page to find out more about a behavior consult.

To find a veterinary behavior specialist in your area, if you live outside the DC Metro area, and would like to find a certified behaviorist or trainer, check out:

Also, here are links for DC, MD, and VA area pre-planned firework events for 2012: