The Fourth of July is a favorite holiday for many. Barbecues, time with family and friends, fireworks—what’s not to love? Well, for our four-legged friends, quite a bit. Pets and fireworks don’t play nicely. The consistent booming and popping of fireworks around the U.S. holiday can be a taxing time for pets.
And just because your dog doesn’t crawl under your bed or your cat doesn’t curl up in your closet behind a pile of clothes, doesn’t mean they are anxiety-free. Pets can exhibit stress in several ways, says Melissa Lehmann, a veterinarian at Union Veterinary Clinic in Washington, D.C. Dogs might hide, shake, yawn, lick their lips, pant, pace, refuse treats, or cower. Cats can show anxiety by hiding, crouching, or being restless; or they might exhibit it through dilated pupils, increased vocalization, hypersalivation, and sometimes even increased aggression.
So that everyone in your family can have a happy 4th, we’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to help you help your pets through the annual snap, crackle, and pop.
Desensitize your pet ahead of time
While not a quick fix, you can prepare your pet for fireworks with counterconditioning. James Ha, a certified applied animal behaviorist and a University of Washington Emeritus Research Professor, says the behavior technique involves presenting a scary stimulus to a dog, slowly and at a low threshold level, then rewarding the dog for not reacting.
“Connect good things (high quality food treats!) with scary things. [Then] scary becomes good… You are not altering a behavior (directly) but altering an emotional response: anxiety to happiness.”
Ha says counterconditioning is more effective if owners receive training and guidance from a qualified behaviorist; but, if you are flying solo, he recommends playing a recording of fireworks, not too loud, a few times a day for at least a week before the 4th, then giving your dog a reward—such as a small piece of hot dog—if she doesn’t go bonkers. Anxiety will slowly be replaced by the dog looking around for the food treat. After about a week, most dogs will be conditioned to the noise. However, if your pet is immediately overwhelmed by the noise this method should not be continued because it could have the opposite effect and reinforce the panic behavior.
Get prescription medicine in advance
Consider going to your vet for “event meds,” short-acting anti-anxiety medications—but only give if prescribed. Dr. Amy Pike, a veterinary behaviorist in Northern Virginia, says a medicine such as fluoxetine or Xanax can work—but warns pet owners not to give their pets their own prescription. “Just like humans, you have to find the right [drug, and] you have to find the right dose,” she says.
Leave town altogether
If you know your pet has severe fireworks anxieties, consider leaving town with your pet and going on a quiet retreat. While city cats and dogs might be used to the constant loud bangs of urban life, fireworks can still trigger anxieties. You could also opt for a kennel in the country, but only if your pet has visited it before.
“Don’t just drop dogs off at a new kennel on the Fourth of July and expect them to be happy,” says Ha who penned the book, Dog Behavior: Modern Science and Our Canine Companions.
Purchase a vest
“Some animals may be helped by options such as anxiety vests, pheromone collars, [and] calming treats,” says Dr. Lehmann. With researchers from Tufts University, Ha conducted a study in 2013 on the effectiveness of compression-type vests. “They work for some dogs and they work for short-term situations,” Ha said of his research findings, which were funded by the company that makes the product, Anxiety Wrap. But Ha adds, “It’s not a magic solution for all forms of anxiety.”
Give your dog extra exercise
Bring your dog to a dog park, take him for a run or get in a good long walk. This mental and physical exercise can help keep your dog calm for the rest of the day. Walk your dog at least an hour before dark and before the fireworks start.
Bring pets inside and shut the windows
Do not leave dogs in the yard even if they have a dog house. And definitely don’t tie them up outside. “Pets will do most anything to get away from a frightening situation and the combination of restraint and noise can traumatize them even more,” writes licensed veterinary technician Dione L. Black in an All Creatures Veterinary Hospital blog. “They will break tethers, jump through glass windows and even scale tall fences if necessary.”
If you plan to put your pet in the garage or basement, make sure this option is not new to them.
“In an ideal situation, you would be home with your pet so you can be there to gauge their needs,” says Lehmann. But if you can’t, bringing them inside is the best option. Make sure the area is animal-safe and well lit (do not leave dogs in the dark). Consider turning on the TV or radio—but not too loud—to drown out the sound of fireworks.
Do not punish a pet for being scared
Punishing your pet because it’s afraid of loud noises is the wrong reaction, and could lead to reinforcement of their fear. Your job as a pet owner is to quell your dog’s or cat’s anxiety by trying to redirect the animal’s attention. Since your pet takes its cues from you, if you are at home, “Act secure and confident so they will [too],” Black writes. “If you act nervous and agitated, your pet will act the same.”
Allow time for your pets to adjust
Once the fireworks are over and residual “unofficial fireworks” have ended, check on your pets’ moods. If they exhibit signs of stress, consider keeping them in for the night.