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Coping with Fireworks Fear in Pets

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

A good holiday fireworks display can be a beautiful, awe-inspiring, and exciting event. When I was a kid I would beg my parents to stop at the roadside stands so I could spend my allowance on crackers, poppers, screamers, sparklers, whistlers and boomers. My amateur pyrotechnics were the envy of the neighborhood, at least in my teenage mind.

Today I still like to peruse the selection at our local fireworks stand. But my enjoyment of fireworks is tempered by the knowledge that for many pets, fireworks are incredibly scary. I love to celebrate the holidays, but I also love my dog. As his owner, what can I do to help him cope with his fear of fireworks?

It helps if I think about the reasons why he might be scared of fireworks. I remember that his auditory apparatus is very sensitive and can be overwhelmed by sudden loud noises. I remind myself that he probably can't locate where the noises are coming from, understand what a firework is, or grasp why this is all happening. And I remember that firework noise is not something he can experience every day and get used to, since these nights of celebration only happen a few times a year. Putting myself in his shoes, a strong fear response seems like very reasonable reaction!

So instead of trying to prevent him from having a fear response, I want to help him develop an appropriate coping mechanism to deal with his fear. Many dogs have developed inappropriate coping mechanisms like pacing and barking frantically all night, chewing holes in the walls, or running away from home. I don't want him getting hurt, panicking or damaging things. To me, the most appropriate coping response would be for him to go hide in a safe, quiet comfortable place until it is all over. I can facilitate this response by giving him a dark and quiet crate, covered in blankets, placed in a closet or interior room of the house with the door shut. I can play music or turn on the TV to drown out the sudden bursts of noise. The more I can muffle or reduce the sudden noises, the better he will be able to cope. And the better he copes with his fear this time, the easier it will be for both of us next time.

Certainly, some dogs have such a severe fireworks phobia that anti-anxiety medication is necessary. Many people try giving plain old Benadryl for sedation, which is pretty safe, but the anti-anxiety properties are minimal. Other remedies like herbal blends, pheromone sources like Adaptil collars, and pressure wraps like Thundershirts may help comfort some dogs. Prescription anti-anxiety sedatives including trazodone, alprazolam, and dexmedetomidine are the most common medications used in the treatment of fireworks phobia. Sedatives are most effective when given at least 2 hours before the inciting event, and used in combination with environmental modification.

Having lived with a pet with firework phobia, I know how difficult certain holidays can be. However with a little awareness, empathy and support we can help our pets cope with their fear, and still enjoy the celebration. Please call me at the office if you would like to discuss medical treatment options for your pet. Thanks for reading and happy celebrating everyone!

Dr. Hugh

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