Fear of fireworks: how to help your pet

With the main firework season behind us, this is - perhaps surprisingly - the time to consider treating dogs who are afraid of fireworks. Read on to discover how.

This handy guide is in three sections:

How to tell if your pet is suffering from fear of fireworks.

How to prevent fear or how to treat it if already present: proven sound therapy programmes (but not for use during firework season) and drug therapies.

Top tips: immediate help for different species when fireworks are likely, including helpful petcare products for anxiety.

If you would like personalised help to manage an anxious or frightened pet, remember our lovely vet team at VetontheNet are here to consult with you.

They can guide you through product choices, adaptations in the home and, for dogs, both the medical options or the behavioural training and desensitisation which tackle the problem at source.

How can I tell if my pet is scared of fireworks?

Many of our pets are scared by fireworks. Our furred and feathered friends have much more sensitive hearing than us and the unpredictable nature of fireworks and their unfamiliar smell can take them by surprise too. Signs vary from only subtle signs of fear to the extreme and persistent responses seen in fireworks phobia.

Dogs may become clingier, may tremble and shake, bark excessively, cower in a corner or try to run away. They may pace and pant, refuse to eat, lick their lips or yawn a lot; they may even become destructive or toilet indoors.

Stressed cats often become withdrawn, may try to escape, or cower and hide; they may circle or pace, stop eating or drinking, and toilet in unusual places.

Stressed bunnies may eat poorly (and so pass reduced pellets), freeze and stay motionless, stamp their feet or try to escape.

How do I keep my pets calm during fireworks? How can I treat them if already scared?

Let’s look at two ways we can prevent or treat fear: sound therapy and medication.

Sound therapy

Ideally, pets are acclimatised from an early age to the sound of fireworks. Sounds Sociable* is a programme containing a collection of sounds which our pets need to be familiar with and is an important part of socialisation.  Played at increasing volume in a calm and rewarding environment, tolerance is built up to avoid future fear.

Sounds Scary* is a desensitisation programme for pets that are already suffering. It uses sounds, initially at very low volumes, together with rewards; the careful increases in exposure build up an acceptance over time.

These programmes can make a lifelong difference to a dog’s quality of life and are well worth the time and commitment required.  However, desensitisation to firework noises needs to happen outside of the firework season, so is something to start come the Spring.

*Sounds Sociable and Sounds Scary, available as downloads or CDs, were developed by two veterinary surgeons specialising in the field of pet behavioural therapy. Effective and easy to use, they have been made available to everyone – free and with full instructions – in partnership with Dogs Trust. Find them at https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/dog-behaviour-health/sound-therapy-for-pets  

Drug therapy

If your dog is badly affected by fear of fireworks, there are medications that can make a real difference, so do speak to your vet. There are a number to choose from and generally their use is best planned before they are needed.

Top tips: immediate help for different species when fireworks are likely

Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to help our pets cope during an evening of fireworks.  Top tips are offered in this section to help dogs and cats, birds and small furries, and horses and donkeys:

Top tips for dogs and cats:

Plan ahead by walking your dog in daylight, not just before the bangs begin but before darkness falls. Close all the windows and draw the curtains before dusk.

Close any cat and dog flaps, keep all pets indoors and stay home to comfort them if you know they suffer.

Put music, the television or white noise recordings on to help muffle sounds outside. Classical music has been shown to calm some cats and dogs, or try music with a strong beat to mask the bangs.

Never punish your pets; this will only make their fear and anxiety worse.

When fireworks begin, stay calm and relaxed so as to give your pet appropriate cues. They are often far more tuned into our emotions than we realise, sensing them by tone of voice and muscle tension.

If your pet seeks reassurance, do offer this but, again, stay relaxed; speak or stroke calmly; don’t fuss, huddle, cuddle and generally convey that it’s appropriate to be scared!

Provide your pet with somewhere to hide; even better, let them choose a bolthole in your home. This could be a cupboard, under the bed or just a cardboard box but remember, it’s vital that they have access to this at all times – it’s no help having a bolthole if you can’t reach it.

If possible, don’t confine your pet to one room either, as this can increase their anxiety.

For dogs, build a doggy den, whether it’s a dog crate or an under-the-table affair. Place it in a quiet position to minimise disturbance and, if you can, do this well before the firework season so that it becomes a favourite refuge for rest and relaxation. Provide a cosy bed and place favourite toys and treats inside so that the den becomes associated with positive emotions.

Prepare a LickiMat or a well-stuffed Kong containing tasty treats to keep dogs occupied – anything which encourages licking and chewing helps to soothe an anxious dog.

Make the den more cave-like by covering it with blankets and cushions to muffle the sounds and minimise any light flashes. Try providing a pile of blankets or towels inside the den for your dog to scrabble under.

Don’t try and coax a dog out of the den but if they choose to be out and can be distracted by games, by all means play with them.

Cats are great escape artists, so ensure that they are microchipped and your contact details are up to date in case the unthinkable happens.

If your cat normally toilets outside, remember to place a litter tray indoors; try a layer of soil on the top to offer familiarity.

A cat’s way of dealing with stressful situations is often to hide, so don’t try and coax them out of their safe place. Many prefer to be up high, so offer a cosy bed on top of a stable shelf or a wardrobe.

If your cat likes to play, then a new or a favourite toy may provide a distraction but don’t persist if they are disinterested. Cats need to feel in control to reduce stresses of any kind, so don’t try to gather them up for cuddles but let them guide you as to what comfort they want.

Pet care products for anxiety:

There are a number of products available in our online shop that can help to calm your anxious pet. No one product helps every pet, but it’s definitely worth trying both pheromones and calming nutritional supplements. Let’s look at pheromones first:

These are chemical messengers, produced by our pets from special glands and used to communicate with each other. Adaptil for dogs is a diffuser containing a synthetic version of the pheromone that a mothering bitch produces to convey calm and security to her puppies. Find it at Adaptil Calm Diffuser and read more at ADAPTIL Calm Diffuser by Ceva  

Cats use pheromones quite specifically to help them feel calm, safe and secure in their environment, so using a Feliway Optimum diffuser where your pet spends most of their time can be very helpful. Find it at Feliway Optimum Diffuser and read more at FELIWAY Optimum by Ceva

Calming supplements containing natural ingredients can also be given to dogs and cats to help with anxiety. The products differ in their mode of action, so it’s worth trialling a few to find the best one for your pet. Vet on the Net offer a number of veterinary-recommended products including:

Zylkene:  Zylkene Capsules for Dogs and Cats and Zylkene Chews for Dogs and Cats

Alphazium TT:  Alphazium TT for Dogs and Cats

Yucalm  Yucalm Tablets for Dogs, Yucalm One a Day Chews for Dogs and Yucalm Capsules for Cats

Top tips for birds and small furries:

Partly cover cages, pens and aviaries with blankets to help muffle sound and block sudden bright lights.

Leaving a small, sheltered area uncovered provides ventilation and means that your pet can look out if they wish but make sure there are no nearby bonfires and that smoke won’t drift towards them.

Provide lots of extra bedding for your pet to burrow in, which will help to muffle the noise.

Consider moving the cage or hut into a car-free garage or shed to add extra protection – alternately, consider bringing small pets indoors.

Ideally, make these changes a few days before fireworks are expected so that your pet has time to get used to their new surroundings. If they are indoors, close windows and curtains before nightfall and perhaps provide background music, but with care.

Top tips for horses and donkeys:

Check if firework displays are planned near their field or stables. If so and moving them isn’t an option, ask the organiser to site the bonfire as far away as possible and to aim fireworks in the opposite direction.

Check all fencing is secure and free from objects that could damage a horse if spooked or startled. Secure the hay nets so that your horse can’t become entangled in them.

Try and keep the daily routine the same and with the usual companions. If you can, stay with your equine during fireworks, but stay safe yourself – a scared animal can be dangerous.