A percentage of dogs each year will show heightened or extreme (phobic) fear responses to fireworks. Preventative advice may help reduce the occurrence or development of these responses. A fearful temperament can be inherited, and a percentage of dogs in the population will, as result of their genetic makeup be more likely to respond with fear to a variety of situations.
Studies have found that events which are unpredictable, and which the animal is unable to control in any way (including removing themselves from the situation) result in high levels of stress. The unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of fireworks, from a dog’s perception is likely to contribute to the high levels of fear displayed by many pets during the Halloween season. Unfortunately, the behaviour is frequently unwittingly reinforced or rewarded by the owner’s behaviour (comforting and reassuring the animal when fear responses are displayed). The level of fear displayed by the pet frequently increases year by year unless intervention or treatment by the owner is undertaken.
Treatment of fearful or phobic responses to Halloween related activities usually require some or all of the following steps to be carried out
Dogs should be kept indoors at times when fireworks are likely to be heard. This may require that the owner exercises the dog earlier in the day. If this is not possible, extra stimulation may be given through the use of food releasing toys, play sessions, etc.
Radio and television may help to drown out the noises from outdoors. Similarly, closed curtains and windows will help reduce exposure.
Removing the dog from the vicinity of high levels of fireworks activity (e.g., by taking the pet out of the city during Halloween) where possible may benefit the dog by reducing exposure and resultant increases in fear.
Ensuring that the dog is tired will in many cases increase the likelihood of the dog relaxing and even sleeping at times of greatest fireworks activity. Walking the dog, play sessions, delivering the rations through food releasing toys all help to use up the dog’s energy and reduce activity levels at the end of the day.
Provide retreat area
Many dogs retreat to a secluded area in the house in response to hearing fireworks. This should be allowed, and that area made as comfortable as possible for the dog. It is vital that owners do not reassure the dog during a display of fearful behaviours as by doing so, they may be unwittingly reinforcing or rewarding these behaviours.
Few medications are likely to overcome the fear response of dogs to fireworks, particularly if the level of fear is high. However, in conjunction with the measures outlined above, medication may be of benefit to the dog to reduce the level of fear and increase the welfare of the dog during the Halloween period. It is though only your vet who will be able to give you the proper, specific advice on medication for your pet, and who can prescribe certain classes of medications (anxiolytics, sedatives), so whilst this the information below is informative, you will need to talk to your vet about what is best for your pet.
Anxiolytic medications needs to be administered for a period of 3 to 4 weeks before maximum benefit can be enjoyed by the dog. Therefore, these drugs need to be administered several weeks in advance of Halloween period where established fear problems exist.
The use of sedatives may be the most suitable approach where high levels of fear are likely to occur over a relatively short period of time. Other approaches that may be beneficial, particularly if the level of fear is not of phobic proportions include:
a) Pheromones (DAP/Adaptil)
b) Tryptophan supplements (e.g., KalmAid)
c) Milk proteins (Zylkene)
On a long-term basis recurrent fear of fireworks (and also thunderstorms or other fear inducing noises) can be greatly reduced through the use of systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning. Therefore this is not a feasible option for overcoming fear of Halloween activities unless you plan several weeks to months ahead.
Orla Doherty MVB MSc MRCVS