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Your Pet-Friendly Action Plan – Forbes Advisor UK

There was a time when fireworks were restricted to 5 November, or maybe the weekend before or after at an organized display. But now it seems it’s acceptable at any point from mid to late-October onwards to light the blue touch-paper and stand well back – and New Year’s Eve has become a paradise for those who love their pyrotechnics.

If you have pets, you’ll know only too well that the loud bangs and bright flashes caused by fireworks trigger fear, alarm and anxiety among animals, from rodents to livestock and taking in everything from rabbits to horses in between.

According to the RSPCA, an estimated 45% of dogs in the UK suffer from distress and discomfort. That’s around five million canines alone.

It’s a big problem for pet owners. In fact, vets recently called for a complete ban on fireworks sales in supermarkets over the danger they pose to pets, a move that was widely praised by dog ​​charities.

Some retailers are responding. Sainsbury’s stopped selling fireworks in 2019, while ASDA, Aldi and Morrisons are among the supermarkets which have started selling ‘low-noise’ fireworks as a nod to worried pet owners.

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Challenging period

Simon Hayes, veterinarian and primary care medical director of Linnaeus veterinary practices, says: “This is the most challenging time of year for pet owners, as there are so many potential triggers of stress in animals coming up over the next few months.

“There are the bangs of fireworks, the noisy and hectic festive season, including unfamiliar faces and smells, all of which can cause stress in our pets. And, while some owners will seek guidance and advice, we also know there are many other pets who will just suffer through this period.

“Whether it’s trick-or-treaters knocking on doors, Bonfire Night revellers letting off fireworks, or further seasonal celebrations up until Christmas and the New Year, autumn and winter can be an anxious time of year for many pets, and not just dogs. ”

The emotional distress can be bad enough to manifest into physical problems. A recent survey by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) found that one in 14 vets across the country reported seeing animals with firework-related injuries.

By far the most reported cases were self-injuries caused by fireworks-related anxiety, such as tooth injuries to dogs from chewing furniture.

Some of the firework-related trauma is as a result of dogs’ anatomical features. For instance, they can hear at four times the distance of humans, and at a much higher frequency.

Behavioral analysis

Dr Tammie King, Mars Petcare animal behaviourist, explains: “In addition to more sensitive hearing compared to humans, they will not be able to recognize the source of the sound, which can result in fear and anxiety.

“Some pets may also have negative associations with loud noises or have had a bad experience in the past and have since developed a generalized fear of other loud noises. On the flipside, it could be that they’ve had limited exposure to loud noises, while others have a genetic predisposition for high sensitivity.”

Is the problem unique to dogs or does it affect cats too?

Dr King says: “It can affect both cats and dogs, but by their nature and behavioral tendencies, cats will hide, and the owner may not be fully aware of the distress their cat may be experiencing. Dogs in distress tend to be more visible to pet owners.”

So what simple changes can you make right now to help? Dr King advises starting a desensitization or ‘counter conditioning’ program as soon as possible, as this is a long-term strategy rather than a short-term solution.

She says: “Essentially, the program pairs something the pet considers positive with the fear-eliciting stimulus, such as a sound recording of fireworks exploding.

“The goal is to expose them to very low levels of the stimulus, so they notice it but don’t react adversely, while pairing it with something pleasurable like a fun game or food. Then over time, gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus so it no longer elicits a fearful response.

“It is important that this is tightly controlled to ensure the pet doesn’t exceed the threshold at which they start to exhibit behavior related to fear and anxiety. Also that it is carried out at a time when there are no fireworks or other loud noises occurring.

“If done correctly, this can improve the welfare of pets who previously have exhibited fear/anxiety to loud noises.

“You can also create a safe and pleasant place – a den or hiding place – for your pet and teach them where it is and that nice things happen here, such as treats, sleep, toys, petting, and so on.”

fireworks strategy

Top tips from Dr Tammie King:

  • create a safe place for the dog – don’t lock them in, but rather give them choice. Crate, den, under table, etc. Dogs like to hide and escape the noise. Helps to condition/teach a dog about this area before a fireworks event, or something like a thunderstorm
  • use big blankets over crate/hiding area to muffle outside noise
  • close curtains to assist with reducing noise and to prevent visual cues
  • play music/TV semi-loud to help muffle outside noise
  • distract by providing the dog with an alternative such as a long-lasting chew or food dispensing/puzzle toy filled with treats
  • comfort your dog if necessary, remain calm though and don’t dramatise the event. It is a common myth that comforting your dog reinforces their fear and makes them more fearful. This is not true! you would never not comfort/hug a scared child, and the same applies to your pet
  • Appeasing pheromones can help some dogs – discuss with your vet or an expert at a pet store
  • Body wraps (available online and in stores) apply gentle pressure evenly to the body of cats or dogs – much like swaddling an infant – which can help keep animals calm.
Dr Tammie King, seen here with Kade, advocates creating a safe space for your dog during firework nights

In extreme cases, anxiolytic medication prescribed by a vet/veterinary behaviourist may be beneficial. However, Dr King advises against acepromazine (ACP), a drug which immobilises the dog to a degree, as they are still aware of surroundings.

She adds: “It is important to point out that not all pets are frightened by loud noises. Behavior is influenced by genetics, past experiences, and the current environment/situation.

“Some breeds are more predisposed to noise phobias than others due to genetics. For example, herding dog breeds tend to be over-represented in my experience.

“Importantly, puppies and kittens who have been positively socialized to loud noises from a young age during the critical period of socialization, are less likely to exhibit noise phobias.”

Awareness is key, she adds. “Be mindful of your pet’s behavior during these events and, if you notice any signs of stress, don’t ignore the situation, assuming it will get better by itself.

“Your pet needs you to help them feel more relaxed and learn that loud noises need not be feared. For pets who have severe noise phobias, seek qualified behaviourist support, in conjunction with your vet.”

Lead by example

And of course, your own behavior makes a difference. If you’re stressed out, it will have a knock-on effect.

Dr Hayes at Linnaeus says: “One of our top recommendations for pet owners is to remain calm. If owners appear to be unaffected, pets will feel more secure and confident. And remember we vets are here to help. Please contact us if you need advice for the firework season.”

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