No matter how much you try to soothe your pet’s anxiety, they become a trembling fur ball during the July Fourth festivities. You hate to see them so upset, but you are not sure what steps to take next. The team at Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic wants to answer your questions concerning your pet’s fear response.

Q: Why does my pet become so fearful during fireworks displays?

Answer: Your pet inherited their hearing ability from their ancestors, who relied on this sense to catch their dinner. They can hear about four times better than humans, and they can also move their ears toward a sound for better reception. This means that your pet has extremely sensitive ears, and noises that you perceive as merely loud—such as fireworks—can be painful for them. Pets can also become stressed and anxious when they cannot identify the noise source. Their aversion to the fireworks noise may become a phobia, making their situation more difficult to remedy. A noise phobia can develop quickly, and once the sound has solidified in your pet’s mind, any similar noise may trigger their fear response.

Q: Should I be concerned if my pet has an aversion to fireworks noise?

A: Extreme stress and anxiety can affect not only your pet’s mental and emotional health, but also their overall wellbeing, because physiologic changes occur, as well. Your pet’s heart and respiratory rates, and their cortisol levels, can increase, decreasing their body’s ability to fight off infection. Wound healing can be delayed. Some pets develop anxiety-induced diarrhea, and cats can suffer from anxiety-induced feline idiopathic cystitis.

Q: How do I know if my pet is experiencing anxiety or fear during a fireworks display?

A: Some pets can be easier to read than others, but learning to interpret your pet’s body language can help you determine their emotional status. Pets experiencing extreme stress will likely exhibit signs including:

  • Running away or hiding
  • Panting and drooling
  • Alert demeanor and dilated pupils
  • Flattened ears and lowered tail
  • Raised hackles
  • Urinating and defecating
  • Vocalizing

Q: How can I help my stressed pet be less anxious during a fireworks display?

A: Some animals benefit from being sequestered in a window-free or interior room in your home. Distractions such as food-puzzle toys and music or television noise can prevent them from becoming upset. 

Other pets require more intervention. Behavior modification techniques can be useful for some pets. This procedure, which can take several weeks and sometimes months to be successful, involves playing fireworks noises at a low volume around your pet. If your pet does not react negatively, give them a favorite treat or scratch their favorite spot. Continue playing for a few minutes. If possible, repeat this process several times a day, every day, gradually increasing the noise level at each session. If your pet becomes upset at any point, lower the volume until they are calm, and offer them a treat once they are sitting quietly. 

Once your pet is comfortable listening to loud recorded fireworks noise, you can do a trial run to see how they are progressing. Take them to a fireworks display, and park in an area where you can easily hear the noise, but you can leave quickly if your pet becomes agitated. Have music playing before the display begins. When the noise starts, say “Yes” every time a boom occurs, and give your pet a high-value treat. If your pet is handling this well, turn the music off, and continue the practice. As long as they are not becoming upset, lower the window to increase the noise volume. Leave while your pet is still content, before they become upset. 

If your pet shows anxiety during a fireworks display, comfort them, but not excessively, because this could be misconstrued as affirmation that they should be upset. Do not punish your pet in this situation—scolding them can make their fear response worse. Forcing your pet to engage in the fearful experience can result in your pet, or a person, getting injured, if your pet strikes out to avoid the situation.

Q: What if these methods do not help my fearful pet?

A: If your pet continues to exhibit extreme anxiety after your behavior modification attempts, they may require a mild sedative or anti-anxiety medication to help them through the situation. Always talk to a veterinary professional before giving your pet any medication or supplement.

An anxious, fearful pet can be upsetting for you, as well as your pet, but taking steps to help mitigate your pet’s worries can help ensure a happier July Fourth celebration. If you would like to discuss your pet’s anxious behavior, do not hesitate to contact our team at Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic.