Jonckheer-Sheehy MVB MRCVS MSc LAS
Veterinary Referral Centre de Wagenrenk, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Kelly Ballantyne DVM
Behavior Resident in Private Practice, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants, Chicago, USA
IntroductionEvery year millions of dogs all over the world are terrified by the sound of fireworks. Think of Bonfire night in the UK, Independence Day (July 4th) in the USA, New Year’s Eve (all over the world) and Diwali Festival in India. Development of a reactive, anxious, fearful or phobic response to the sound of fireworks is a very common behavioral problem in dogs. All too often dogs affected by this condition also suffer from other sound sensitivities (e.g. storms) and anxiety disorders, particularly separation anxiety.
Signs of a problemWhen should you be concerned? Your dog may have a problem if he repeatedly reacts in any of the following ways to a sound such as fireworks*
*Please note that this list is not exhaustive and displaying one of these signs in response to a sound does not definitively mean that a dog has a sound sensitivity. If your dog shows one or several of these signs in response to any noise then you should contact your veterinarian.
Which dogs do these conditions affect?Noise phobias can affect dogs of any age, breed, gender or neutering status. However, herding breeds such as German Shepherd Dogs and Border Collies seem to be more susceptible to developing this condition. Young and elderly dogs may also be more susceptible.
What causes it?No one is completely sure what causes noise phobias. We do know that dogs can inherit the condition or they might develop it after a traumatic experience or some other factor. It may involve difficulties in information processing in the brain but it doesn’t seem to be due to an abnormally increased ability to hear. It would seem that dogs with fearful temperaments might be more likely to be “sensitive” to noises. If your dog has a true noise phobia then he or she is likely to have one or more relatives that suffer from it and any offspring will inherit it too. Thus breeding from affected dogs is not recommended.
There is an array of medical conditions that your veterinarian should rule out when considering this diagnosis. Your veterinarian may take a detailed history, perform a complete physical and neurological examination of your dog and may take blood samples from your dog for testing to rule out some of these conditions.
- Avoid triggers: Noise phobic dogs should not be brought to firework displays in the hope that they’ll get used to it. In fact, doing so will probably intensify their fears. Situations with very predictable and defined fireworks events should be avoided at all costs. Remove the dog from the location during a firework event.
- Modify or remove triggers: Modify or remove triggers such as the sound of fireworks. Consider teaching your dog (in a positive way) to wear ear plugs or noise canceling headphones, such as Mutt Muffs (www.safeandsoundpets.com). You could keep him in a sound insulated area or use acoustic tiles. Playing competing noise from the TV/radio or using white noise might be helpful in some cases. Be sure not to play it so loud that the background music itself exacerbates the problem. Make sure all blinds, shutters, and curtains are shut during a firework event.
- Don’t use punishment: Don’t punish your dog physically or shout at him if he reacts to the sound of fireworks. This will only make him more anxious/reactive and he may even react aggressively to you. It may also teach him that he was right to be worried in the first place.
- Safe haven: Create a safe haven for your dog with your dog’s blanket, cushion and one or two familiar toys. Feed him there or leave tidbits in there frequently for him to find. Let your dog get used to this before the fireworks season (it can be a place that the dog is already accustomed too). If you think your dog will want to escape to that place during a firework event then try to get him to go and settle there before the fireworks start. Ideally this would be an inner room.
- Medication: Your veterinarian may prescribe anxiolytic medication to aid treatment and minimize your dog’s suffering. The goal of using anxiolytic medication is to reduce the intensity of your dog’s fears. These medications should be used in combination with a behavior modification plan outlined by your veterinarian. All medications should be prescribed by a veterinarian. Please don’t give your dog any medications without consulting your veterinarian first as you may seriously harm your dog’s health.
- Diet: Your veterinarian may recommend giving your dog different food or adding certain supplements to his diet. Please don’t give your dog any supplement or change his diet without consulting your veterinarian first.
- Pheromones and homeopathic treatments: There is no robust scientific evidence to prove that these are useful in treating dogs with this condition. Please note that homeopathic treatments are not always safe.
- Anxiety Wrap: There is no robust scientific evidence to show it reduces anxiety in firework sensitive dogs. However, wearing the Anxiety wrap probably won’t harm your dog if you have taught him to accept wearing it in a positive manner. You should stay with him whilst he wears it and ensure he doesn’t over heat or become entangled in it.
- Comforting the dog: Try to be home or have someone stay with your dog during a firework event. There is no evidence that proves comforting your dog or ignoring him makes him worse or helps. It may help some dogs to hold them firmly and lean into them. Only do this with dogs who approach you and if you think it will benefit them. Release them if they struggle. Long firm massage strokes may also help.
- Playing CDs of firework sounds? In some cases behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counter conditioning to sounds from a CD will be recommended by your veterinarian. Essentially, this is getting your dog used to the sound of fireworks from a CD at a volume that doesn’t provoke a full blown fearful or panic reaction and rewarding him for that. You gradually work your way through a program until your dog perceives the sound of fireworks as being a good thing! You should not engage in this or any other behavior modification program without first consulting your veterinarian. Your veterinarian or a qualified canine behavior therapist recommended by your veterinarian can help you with this part of the program if you need additional support.
RememberIf your dog reacts to fireworks you need to bring him to your veterinarian for a complete physical work up so that he can be screened and treated for other anxiety disorders as his welfare may be severely compromised. Your veterinarian may refer you to a behavior veterinarian in more complex cases.
© Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy and Kelly Ballantyne 2013
This article may be reproduced with written permission from the authors.