The firework season is approaching and while we love the bright colours and exciting explosions, many of our pets will become scared and stressed. When you look at it from their point of view, it is easy to see why fireworks might be terrifying. Our pets usually like and live by some sort of routine and evenings are often relaxing. Gradual changes such as the seasons don't affect their evenings and familiar guests are a friendly, welcome change. Loud bangs, flashes of light and horrible smells suddenly invading their home for long periods of time can be very upsetting and to make things worse, they can't escape them.
Dogs and cats typically present their 'Firework Fear' by cowering and hiding (dogs under or behind furniture and cats up high), soiling in the house, refusing to eat and trying to run away. Dogs may also bark excessively, tremble, pant and pace while cats may scratch vertically and spray. With a little time and patience you can change this and get back to your normal, worry-free evenings.
Preparation is key to conquering 'Firework Fear' and keeping your pets as happy as possible during a potentially stressful experience. Check your local notice boards, local newspapers and with neighbours for any planned displays.
For effective long term management of a fear, your pet needs to get used to the stimulus (the thing that scares them) and see it as part of normal life. The noises they currently find so scary should become part of the mixture of other background noises they simply ignore. There is a range of CDs and DVDs available or you could use sites such as YouTube to play firework videos. The idea is to introduce the noise slowly, at a very low volume and for videos, a low screen brightness too. At this low level, it should not scare your pet but they will notice it and react in some way. You should play these sounds and videos at the same level until your pet no longer reacts and then the following day you can increase the volume and brightness slightly. Be careful not to sit there and watch your pet and do not make a fuss of them if they show concern- continue with your day as normal. Over a matter of weeks, you should be able to increase the volume and screen brightness until they are on maximum and your pet is no longer concerned. This is a process known as desensitisation.
Counter conditioning is the replacement of an unwanted behaviour with a wanted behaviour. In this case, you will aim to eliminate fearful reactions to fireworks and achieve calm and happy pets.
Of course, you may not have enough time to desensitise them fully before the first event but starting as soon as possible while there are no real fireworks going off will help. Each pet will react in their own way and adapt in a different amount of time, so be patient if you have multiple pets and one is taking longer.
Everyone needs a special place to retreat to when things get too much and our pets are no different! Your pet may already have a favourite place to relax but if they don't, you can make one. Dogs usually prefer to be enclosed either under furniture or in their crates. Cats generally feel safest higher up but loud noises will often send them fleeing for cover under furniture. Where ever your pet is happiest, enhance or set up their special place.
Although your pets will be inside, they should wear a collar and tag with your contact details just in case they manage to get out. Some cats may be out earlier on in the day and if they are not back before the fireworks start, they could get lost trying to run away. To give any lost pets the best chance of being reunited with owners, having them micro-chipped is invaluable.
The most successful product ranges on the market for alleviating symptoms of stress in cats and dogs are Feliway and Adaptil. Both of these ranges contain synthetic copies of feel-good chemicals produced naturally by our pets. When your cat rubs its face around its home and on you, it releases positive pheromones that mark its territory and you as safe. Feliway products contain a copy of the cat's pheromone and produces the same reassuring effects to calm nervous or tense cats. adaptil products contain a copy of the pheromone produced by bitches to comfort their puppies. Both feliway and Adaptil produce astounding results and help with all areas of stress-induced behaviours.
Feliway Diffusers and Adaptil Diffusers are simply plugged into normal sockets in the room(s) your pet spends the most time in. Each will last around a month and refills are available. Use a diffuser in the same room as your pet's den, to bathe its surroundings in positive chemicals to help your pet relax during the fireworks. You can alternatively use the handy sprays inside their den and around the room for short term effects (2-3 hours). Adaptil Collars can also be used, with effects lasting up to 4 weeks. Alternatively, Adaptil tablets are now available.
Natural or Herbal remedies are also available. Zylkene is a natural product containing a milk protein that binds to special receptors in the brain, inducing calmness during stressful times. Dorwest Scullcap & Valerian is a perfect example of an effective herbal medicine for the relief of Firework fear.
Your vet will be able to advise on medication in extreme cases but with time and a good desensitisation program, any dog will improve. We have a short blog post on recommended Pet Calming Products if you would like more information. The Thunder Shirt is a relatively new product on the market which calms anxious or excited pets through a gentle, constant pressure. This relieves nervous system stress and has been shown to help 80% of dogs with symptoms of anxiety. The product quick find is: 156186.
These rules apply whether you have been preparing for months, weeks or even if the fireworks come as a surprise!
Animals such as hamsters, rabbits and birds are very easily frightened and should be given as much care as possible. If they live outside, see if it is possible to move hutches and cages into a quiet room inside or at least into a shed. Use thick blankets to cover immovable hutches and aviaries but leave a gap for them to look out and for fresh air to circulate. The blankets will dampen the noise and block out some of the flashes of light. If you can, turn hutches away from the noise and light. Provide lots of extra bedding to allow them to burrow deeper to feel safe and perhaps give them some extra treats and toys to nibble on.
One of the strongest instincts in an animal is the will to survive. As a prey animal, horses have a very strong fight-or-flight response and are naturally easily startled. The impulse to outrun whatever has troubled them is usually the first response but if a horse is trapped they will endeavour to defend themselves by biting, kicking and rearing. Domesticated horses have often grown up in our artificial environments and many are accustomed to the everyday hustle and bustle of yards and even working farms with loud machinery. Fireworks are a less frequent and very intense experience, full of sudden and unfamiliar sounds, sights and smells.
F: Fireworks should never be set off close to horses and should be pointed in the opposite direction of their fields and stables.
I: Instinct is deep routed and when startled, a frightened horse will try to escape whatever it is that threatens them.
R: Raise awareness in your local area. Ask to put up posters on notice boards and explain to neighbours, local fireworks organisers the significant effects fireworks might have on horses.
E: Examine your stables, yard and fields for anything a startled horse may harm itself on. Check for loose nails, sharp edges in stalls and ensure that all gates, bolts and fences are secure. The last thing you want is your horse to get out and find itself on a public road in a state of panic.
W: Warn your local community that you have horses. Work with local farmers to spread the word as livestock will also be affected. Give out your telephone number so that people can contact you if they hear of a display.
O: Organisation is key. Know when local displays are going to happen and make sure you have prepared as well as possible: securing fields/stables, consider a desensitisation program in the weeks/months running up to firework season (see principle explained above), speak to a vet if you feel your horse is an extreme case.
R: Reassurance. As a herd animal, horses look to their companions (including owners) for reassurance and safety. If you know that your horse gets upset during fireworks, make sure you stay with them and create a light, relaxed atmosphere. When they are tense and restless, speak in gentle and calming tones to soothe them. Never leave a distressed animal alone and if you need to go out during a planned display, ask an experienced person who knows your horse to keep them company.
K: Keep their night time routine the same where safe to do so. If you usually turn them out overnight, leave them out if the field is secure and you have ensured the fireworks and not nearby. Stabled horses will be more sheltered from the noise and flashes but in extreme cases have been known to harm themselves or even break free. Some extra bedding around the edges can help to prevent scrapes. Playing some music will help to cover the sound of fireworks and turning on the light will reduce the flashes of light that would light up the stable and startle your horse.
S: Safety! Horses are large, powerful animals with the potential to cause serious damage to you, another horse or themselves even without meaning to. If you horse startles, move out of the way and do not attempt to restrain it. It is best to stand outside a stable door or the other side of a fence during the fireworks, especially if they are restless. A worried horse will move around and feel safer when they can move their feet in response to a stimulus- it is like a preparation for flight while they are waiting for a stronger signal to flee. Always watch for their reactions and stay calm yourself. Respond appropriately to their actions and try to create a positive atmosphere to influence them.
There is a huge range of horse calming supplements, many of which make use of the properties of herbal and natural ingredients.
Zylkene Equine Sachets are popular and effectively used to manage short and long term stress in horses. Casein, the milk protein in Zylkene, acts upon specific receptors in the brain to reduce anxiety and relax horses during stressful events. The sachets are extremely easy to give as the apple flavoured powder is simply mixed into food. During firework season, Zylkene should be given from two days prior to, and on the day of the event.
NAF Magic products are a range of Magnesium-based calmers, blended with soothing herbs. The powder and liquid require a loading period which will be suitable for planned firework displays. The syringe paste is formulated to take effect around an hour, to an hour and a half after administration, making them ideal for short notice events. Magnesium deficiency (not having enough in the body for normal function) has been shown to contribute to several mental health issues including anxiety. Magnesium supplements aim to ensure that during times of stress, horses have enough Magnesium to maintain nervous system integrity and relax tense muscles. Together with herbal properties, NAF Magic can have great results.
As with all natural and herbal products, each horse will react slightly differently and it may be more or less effective between individuals. If you still have concerns or believe that they are unable to help your horse, it is best to seek advice from your vet and discuss alternatives.
Hopefully you will now have a good understanding of the different elements that will help your pet through the stressful events ahead. Our short Pet Calming Products blog post covers the recommended equine products and provide a little more information on how they work. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or would like some extra advice on the topic.