With November 5th
fast approaching and New Year’s Eve following a few weeks later, winter can be a stressful time for our pets. With few pets able to cope with the flashing lights and loud bags of fireworks it’s important to be prepared and there are several things you can do to help, including some dietary changes.
Sound therapy – a few months before
Sound therapy is a way of desensitising your pet to different noises. It involves using CDs with recordings of fireworks, thunder or other sounds they could become fearful of. The idea is that you play them quietly at first, for short periods of time then increase the volume and length of time gradually. Ideally this type of treatment programme needs to be started several months before the actual event.
Create a safe haven - a few weeks before
You may want to make a den or hiding place where your pet can feel safe if they become anxious. Crates or tables with blankets draped over them to muffle noise and light can be very useful. Ideally set up your den a week or two in advance and encourage your dog to go there by putting treats and their favourite toys inside.
Visit your vet
For extremely fearful pets your vet can prescribe medications which can help them to cope with stressful situations. However, as with all medications there can be side-effects so it is important that you go to the vet to discuss your pet’s needs a couple of weeks in advance. Some medications and supplements need to be started in advance of bonfire night and others may need to be trialled on a day when there are no fireworks to check for side-effects.
Visit your pet shop
Pet shops and veterinary practices will stock products such as anxiety t-shirts or wraps, pheromone and valerian diffusers. The t-shirts and wraps help to calm dogs by applying gentle, constant pressure, similar to a gentle hug or swaddling a baby, whereas pheromones work as either sprays or plug-in diffusers. When released by their mother, appeasing pheromones (which are odourless to humans) help kittens and puppies feel safe and secure, pheromone diffusers release a synthetic copy of this appeasing pheromone to help pets feel at ease. Alternative diffusers are also available but they use natural Valerian plant oil to help pets feel calm.
On the day
Take your dog for a walk before it gets dark and the fireworks start, get cats indoors and try to protect outdoor animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs by covering sheds and hutches with old carpets or tarpaulins to muffle light and sound.
Closing the curtains and playing music or putting the TV on can help to mask sounds once indoors and you could also try and distract your pet by playing games with them or teaching them a new trick using toys or treats.
Crates or tables with blankets draped over them to muffle noise and light can be very useful.
Don’t be afraid to comfort your pet if they are scared. Previous training advice was to ignore fearful behaviour in case this reinforced the fear but this is now considered to be outdated advice.
Research into ingredients that may help to calm pets has shown mixed results. One of the products your vet may recommend for your dog or cat is a supplement produced from a milk protein called Casein and this has been clinically proven to help reduce anxiety. Another area of interest has focussed around tryptophan (an amino acid) and its effects on serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter in the brain that effects mood). However, the results do not currently support the theory that tryptophan may be useful for anxious dogs.
Herbs & plants such as Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Valerian and Skullcap are often added to foods or supplements to help pets relax but the quality, amount and preparation of the herb can all play a part in how effective they can be. If you decide to go down this avenue then speak to your vet about licensed high quality supplements.
As with medications, any dietary changes or supplements would usually need to be started a few weeks before the actual event, so speak to your vet in advance.
If you’ve got a puppy
Up until 16 weeks old, puppies are going through a critical stage of their development when they are open to learning about new situations and environments. This is called the ‘window of socialisation’. After this period of time anything new (including different noises and sounds) that they haven’t come across before will be met with apprehension. This socialisation period is the ideal time to introduce puppies to noises like fireworks and thunder. As with adult dogs, sound therapy using recordings is a great way to do this in a safe environment.
Unfortunately, during the socialisation period, puppies also have a phase known as the ‘fear imprint period’ which is seen between 8-11 weeks old. During this period any traumatic, frightening or painful experiences will have a more lasting effect and can set your puppy back for life. If your puppy is around this age when fireworks are due, it is best to try and make the experience as positive as possible. You can play games and reward your puppy during the event or even give them a treat or get them to fetch something each time you hear a bang. This will teach them that the noises actually mean something good is about to happen.
Preparation is the key and the earlier you can start the better your pet is likely to cope. If you are too late to fully prepare for this year’s bonfire night, don’t forget that New Year’s Eve is just around the corner and you can start getting ready the day after Guy Fawkes has been and gone.