What are holidays to humans, are often days filled with fears and stress for pets. “However, there are various ways in which you can prevent or reduce fireworks fear,” says Claudia Vinke, a behavioural expert at the Animal Behaviour Clinic at the University Veterinary Medicine Centre Utrecht. “On the fireworks moment itself, you can make the situation as calm as possible for your pet, possibly with medication. But you can also teach your pet ahead of time to no longer fear loud noises. The vet can advise you on all possibilities.”
New-year's Eve, a party with a bang for pets too?
Well-trained is half as scared
A good start to handle fear of fireworks is to let a pet get used to loud noises. “There are even special CDs available for that,” Claudia Vinke says. “With such a CD, you gradually teach your dog or cat to get used to increasingly louder (fireworks) noise by slowly increasing the volume. Start by playing the sound at a low volume. If your pet does not respond with fear, reward it with, for instance, playing, food or a hug. You then play the sound increasingly louder, while you keep rewarding your pet for good, non-afraid behaviour.”
Sometimes the CD is insufficient. “You could then train outside, like with a cap gun you can buy at the toy store. Do take care that the sound is not too loud in the beginning, for instance by increasing the distance to your pet.” Eventually, loud noise becomes a permanent positive association for the pet. Depending on the personality of the dog or cat, such training can take approximately six weeks.
Calm owner, calm pet
If it is not possible to train in a timely manner, the pet's owner can still optimise the situation. “Start to distract your pet well before the fireworks begin, instead of ‘waiting’ for it. Close the curtains, so your pet doesn't see the fireworks and turn on the radio or TV – though not too loud immediately. Let your pet seek out a quiet spot by itself and most important; stay as calm as possible, do not partake in your pet's unrest,” Claudia Vinke emphasises.
“Ignore expressions of fearful behaviour, that prevents later problems with taught fear behaviour. Does your dog want to sit next to you in front of the TV during the fireworks? Let it just sit there, but don't pet it or speak to it if it's shaking with fear, act like everything is normal.”
Medication if needed
In case of immediate, serious fear, short-term medication can also be a solution. “We usually recommend brief use of Alprazolam in such cases. It's been scientifically proven that it works against fear, and it is less dulling than other sedatives. An additional advantage of that is that your pet is still capable of learning to handle the situation. For all medications against fear, there is the rule you can only give them to your dog or cat briefly because of the side effects. They are only available on prescription by the vet.”
The Animal Behaviour Clinic is one of the six clinics at the University Veterinary Medicine Centre Utrecht. The Animal Behaviour Clinic treats behavioural problems in dogs, cats and parrots.