SAFE ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
Medications, special shirts may calm anxious pets when fireworks start
By Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
If there’s one holiday that’s not popular at U.S. shelters and veterinary emergency hospitals, it’s probably the Fourth of July. That’s because the fireworks and other celebrations of this midsummer bash trigger pet care tragedies — a flow of lost pets, sick pets and injured pets.
Loud noises startle and distress many pets, with their supersensitive hearing. Scared pets have been known to jump out of apartment windows, leap over or dig under fences, or chew their skin until it’s raw. They may also bolt out an open door to become lost and never found, or hit by a car. Even the ones who just tremble in terror may be safe, but they’re miserable. Even calm pets may seize the opportunity offered by a holiday buffet to eat something they should not.
While most of the danger is on the actual holiday, the noise and parties can continue for days, especially when the Fourth falls midweek, as it does this year.
The best defense against Fourth of July problems is a good offense started weeks or months before summer. Professional trainers and behaviorists start socializing dogs and making every potentially negative experience — such as fireworks and thunderstorms — into something rewarding. If a negative experience comes with tasty treats, then your pet is going to at least tolerate it, if not welcome it. This works best when started as a puppy, but don’t give up hope if your dog is already an adult: New behaviors can be learned.
One way to help your pet is to expose him or her to commercial recordings of thunderstorms or fireworks and play them at increasing volume. Play the recordings at low volume — recognizing how acute a pet’s hearing is — and give praise and treats. It’s a party! As the volume and duration are increased during subsequent sessions, give him really tasty treats so he has the expectation of a repeat treat. Initially, play the recording for five minutes, eventually leaving it on during daily activities as “normal” background noise.
That’s fine for next year, but what about this year’s holiday?
Provide pets with safe hiding spaces inside your home during the holiday fireworks or a storm. Dogs and cats who are comfortable in crates can find them a good place to ride out the noise, especially if the crate is put in a quiet, darkened part of the house.
Some pets are so unhinged by noise that veterinary-prescribed medications are needed to keep them calm. Valium and Xanax (and their generic versions) are well-tolerated by most pets, and many veterinarians are happy to provide you with a pre-holiday prescription. Remember to give the medications as recommended — they usually work best before the rockets’ red glare begins. And talk to your veterinarian about other calming techniques. Some alternative-care veterinarians may recommend the herbal product Rescue Remedy, while others can show you acupressure and massage techniques to keep pets calmer.
Pet-supply retailers offer additional ways to calm your pet, such as with pressure shirts for animals, which work off the same principles that calm autistic children. The Thundershirt and The Anxiety Wrap are two such products for dogs and cats. The Calming Cap, which reduces sensory input, is another product meant to ease anxious pets. Finally, for dogs there’s the “Through a Dog’s Ear” series of music CDs that are clinically proven not to cover noise, but to use sound to calm canines.
Make sure your pet isn’t a casualty of Independence Day. If nothing else, keep your pet inside until the celebrations are over, and call your veterinarian for medication that can help ease the fear.