Most people throughout the UK will be looking forward to the festivities surrounding bonfire night and the firework season, but many of us owners are dreading how our pets will react. Firework phobias are widespread in pets and one study found that up to 52% of dogs have firework-related anxiety. Our feline friends are particularly noise sensitive and can suffer from similar fear-related problems. The resulting stress for our pets is not only a welfare problem but can lead to dangerous and damaging behaviours. It’s really important that we work out if our pets do suffer from a firework phobia and learn how to manage it accordingly.

How can I tell if my pet has a fear of fireworks?

Your pet will start showing signs of stress in the build up to or during the firework season. Signs of stress associated with fireworks in dogs and cats include the following:

  • Hiding behaviours; staying for abnormally long periods in beds/safe places, or under furniture.

  • Vocalising, including crying or calling.

  • Toileting in abnormal places.

  • Destructive behaviours such as destroying furniture or toys.

  • Dog specific behaviours:

    • Seeking excessive amounts of attention.

    • Panting and pacing.

  • Cat specific behaviours:

    • Overgrooming. This is hard to spot and often the first signs are hair loss.

    • Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD); pain and straining when urinating, blood in the urine. NB It is always best to see your vet for these signs, if present, as the cause can be more serious than just anxiety.

A mild phobia can present as even just one of the above. If you are seeing any of these signs in association with the firework season then it is worth looking into managing the fear.

Treating and managing a firework phobia

1. Consider helpful environment and routine changes.

These must be done a good few days before the firework season starts, so your pet is used to them. Any changes on the night itself can actually worsen the phobia.

  • Environmental changes;

    • Build a den. This is a safe environment where your pet will feel comfortable.

    • Play calm music such as classical music as this has been proven to help calm pets.

    • Close the curtains. This prevents the flashing lights triggering the fear.

    • Set up a play area. This is particularly helpful in dogs as an area with toys can help distract them from the fear.

  • Routine changes:

    • Keep your pet indoors in the evening. They may spook and try to escape if outdoors during the fireworks.

    • Walk your dog during daylight to avoid your dog hearing fireworks whilst outside.

2. Behavioural training

Phobias in our pets tend to get worse and worse over time, which is usually because each time the fear event happens, it is reinforced. Your pet realises that their anticipation of the ‘fear’ was justified and they become even more fearful the next time it happens.

Behavioural training is the most important way to help resolve a firework phobia as it stops this process in its tracks. This is best done by a professional behaviourist if the phobia is severe. Below are a few do’s and don'ts that are a good starting point:

Do’s

  • Give your pet affection but only if they need it.

  • Distract with toys/games. Playing with your pet can help them create a positive memory of the firework season. If your pet refuses to play though then don’t force it.

  • Reinforce good behaviours. If your pet is doing well and is calm, then give them a treat or affection.

  • Try to ignore negative behaviours as reinforcing these with affection/treats worsens the problem. Try to distract your pet and then reinforce the positive behaviours that occur afterwards.

Don’ts

  • Show your own fear. Our pets can pick up on tiny behavioural cues that we are also anxious about the issue. Just act like you would on a normal day.

  • Make unnecessary environment changes when fireworks occur. It is important to make any house changes (e.g. a den) before the fireworks start. Your house is a safe place for your pet and drastically changing it during the event can worsen the fear.

  • Overly ‘check up’ on your pet or give excessive affection. If they are settled and calm in their den or safe place then constant interfering may make them more anxious. Try to act as normal as possible.

3. Calming Aids

These are a great tool to be used alongside behavioural training. They can prevent some mild anxieties or alleviate some of the signs of moderate/severe phobias. They come in oral and spray/diffuser form. You can use an oral supplement (such as SettleMe) alongside a spray/diffuser (such as Pet Remedy) and it is worth using a combination like this together if the phobia is severe. A link to our calming ranges can be found below:

4. Medications

If the phobia is severe then it is best to seek veterinary advice for prescription calming medications. Behaviour modifying drugs like Diazepam are great alongside a good behaviour training program. These help calm your dog, but can also help your dog ‘forget’ the fear itself and reduce the reinforcement effect. We can dispense many of these medications to you alongside a written prescription from your vet - more information on this can be found here.

If you have any specific questions that have arisen from this blog then please contact us on [email protected] and one of our vets can provide tailored advice for you and your pet.

Written by: Dr. Nick Garside BVetMed MRCVS