Remember, remember, your pet BEFORE this November!
With autumn fast approaching, the message animal behaviourists and vets want to raise awareness with owners is: it’s never too early to support your dog and cat to prepare for the firework season starting in November.
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Is your dog or cat firework-fearful?
Sadly, approximately 45%* of our pet dogs and cats are fearful of loud noises, including fireworks(1). Whilst fear is a normal emotional response towards a perceived threat in the environment, repeated stressful exposures can compromise welfare, the problem can worsen, and your dog might find increasing types of noises frightening. This becomes progressively more challenging and distressing for all involved, and not just on bonfire night.
Every dog or cat has their own unique behaviour, but some common signs of noise fear include: barking or whining, lowered posture, a tucked tail, shivering, excessive salivation, heavy panting, dilated pupils, restlessness, hiding, trying to escape, digging or destructiveness.
Dogs and cats can develop noise fears for different reasons
Genetic predisposition: A dog or cat with a less confident and more sensitive temperament may be more likely to develop fear or anxiety towards challenging environmental stimuli, including noises.
Early life experience: Either a complete lack of experience, or an unpleasant encounter with specific noises in early life, will increase the likelihood of a fear developing in adulthood. It’s really important that puppies are carefully introduced to new sounds at a pace they are comfortable with in their critical period for learning at approximately 3-12 weeks of age, and that different sounds are presented as positive experiences, to prepare them for life to come! The process of carefully introducing puppies to new stimuli so that they become comfortable with them is called habituation. The opposite of this is sensitisation – this is when an animal becomes fearful of specific stimuli.
Ongoing learning: An unpleasant encounter at any stage of life can cause a fear to develop, so it’s really important we do what we can to support our pets during firework season, even if they have never shown signs of fear before. Older dogs can be susceptible to developing noise fears, as their sensory perception declines.
Long term success requires changing how your pet feels and behaves in response to fireworks or other noises (counterconditioning), and this needs to be taken at your pet’s pace within a carefully controlled environment (desensitisation). This needs to happen way before bonfire night and other seasonal celebrations interfere! Your vet can refer you to a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist who can support you with a bespoke treatment plan for your pet’s firework fear.
Tips to manage your pet’s fear
Here are some things you can do to manage your environment and minimise the impact of fireworks – but remember – the only way they will feel better in the long term, is to address the underlying fear.
In advance of bonfire night:
- Ask your vet to refer you to a behaviourist to work up a bespoke treatment plan
- Consider using YuCALM to help reduce your dog’s anxiety, starting the product before firework season.
- Provide free access to a covered ‘safe space’ where your dog naturally prefers to be and make it comfortable, dark, and away from windows and household disturbance. Provide regular positive associations in the space, such as treats, toys and familiar bedding. Do as much as you can to reinforce this as a great place to be! They should be able to go here any time they choose, not just during fireworks, and must always be able to leave if they wish. Add lots of blankets and cushions to muffle the impact of loud noises.
- Exercise your dog and give them toilet breaks before it’s dark to minimise the risk of being outside when fireworks go off, and keep your dog on-lead to avoid losing them if something does scare them (lots of dogs run off when frightened). Put your cat out before it get’s dark outside.
- Close blinds, curtains, and cat flaps and keep your lights on to minimise the impact of flashes from outside.
- Play music or have the TV on, to muffle the sound of fireworks, taking care to avoid any other sounds your dog might be fearful of!
- It’s OK to comfort your dog or cat if they are worried about fireworks or other sounds so long as you don’t give more fuss than normal – keep your behaviour calm and try to ignore the noises yourself.
- Encourage your pet to use their den, offering them treat such as a stuffed Kong, a Lickimat or a puzzle feeder to distract them.
- Reward any relaxed behaviour, offering treats and physical attention.
- Distract your pet with other activities like play, if they can focus on this, but don’t force it.
- Never punish your pet or tell them off, as this will increase their fear.
*Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. D. & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145, 15-25