Any owner of dogs or cats that find fireworks difficult to deal with knows just how stressful the firework season can be. It's one thing shutting curtains to block the flashes of light, and only walking the dog during daylight, but the squeals and bangs going off into the night are not so easily avoided. The problem scares wildlife and pets alike, and has now lead to the invention of animal-friendly fireworks, though they are yet to catch on as they are very new.
So what causes it? These loud noises do not happen very often, so it can be very difficult to get them habituated to it whilst they're young. The other major factor that many people underestimate, is genetics. Some dogs and cats are simply predisposed to certain traits. We all know that Collies are widely regarded as clever, that Siamese cats are vocal, and that Labradors are known to be foodies, and we all accept this. Some dogs or cats have a genetic predisposition to be more anxious than others, in the same way that some have a natural love or fear of water. The first time a dog sees water, it might be scared, or it might be curious, this predisposition is the same with sound. So if your dog or cat is struggling, you will just need to work much harder than those who have a dog or cat who is not naturally worried by noises.
So what can you do? Let's get a few products out the way first. Most people either want a quick fix, or are caught out by the fireworks and they need something to help here and now.
Animals and humans have pheromones. These are species-specific, i.e. a mouse pheromone means nothing to a dog. As such, humans cannot smell these dog and cat pheromones. Pheromones are produced for all sorts of reasons, but they communicate some sort of message: "I'm in season", "I'm stressed", "I'm your mother". We can replicate these pheromones, and bottle them. There is a company called CEVA, who produce a dog pheromone called Adaptil, and a cat pheromone called Feliway. These are available in a spray, impregnated in collars, or even as a plug-in diffuser. You plug the scent into the wall, and it fills the room with these pheromones, and as we cannot smell it, but the dog or cat can, it can be a useful aid. Adaptil is a synthetic version of the pheromone that a puppy's mother releases whilst feeding the litter that confirms the feeling of safety and calm. Feliway on the other hand, is a synthetic version of the pheromone that cats rub from their face on to objects when you see them semi-headbutting things. Again, this pheromone says, "this is my home, my safe place where I can relax". These diffusers are best plugged in a couple of weeks before firework season so they can begin their work before they are required to, allowing your dog or cat to start from the best possible position.
Adaptil & Feliway are aids, rather than solutions. They can really help keep your dog and cat calm, not just for fireworks, but for moving house, re-decorating, introducing a new pet etc. When working with pet behaviour, there is never a simple, quick fix. Solutions that offer this will never work, hard graft is unfortunately the only way forwards.
Habituation to these noises is the key. Habituation is essentially hearing the noise, but learning to ignore it. We all do this, we aren't listening to the traffic whilst having a conversation on the pavement, we have learnt what noises can be ignored. How can we use it? Well, we inadvertently do this when we start to take our puppy or kitten outside. It's important in the first couple of months to expose your new pet to as much as possible, without there being any negative consequence to it, so if a lorry drives past you on the pavement, and your puppy is scared, you took it too far. Instead next time, allow them to hear the lorry from a much further distance, and be doing something fun and positive, so that it is not so intense, and your puppy is not scared, but actively enjoying it. This proximity to the lorry can be increased with time until the lorry drives past the pavement and your puppy does not notice - it has learnt to ignore it.
This is all well and good, but try hiding from fireworks. They are unpredictable and everywhere! Here is where technology has given us an advantage, using recordings, you can simply turn the volume right down, and let your dog do something fun with the noise playing very quietly in the background. You do not even have to record the noise yourself! You don't even have to trawl through YouTube looking for the noise you want. Follow this link:
Sarah Heath & Jon Bowen have created this brilliant tool, that is now free from the Dogs Trust, and comes as a free download and booklet! The audio download consists of track after track of different scary noises, simply play it very quietly whilst your dog or cat is relaxed, and increase the volume gradually over the coming weeks, playing it several times a day. As it gets louder, give them fun, positive activities to do but ensure the sound is never loud enough that they are scared of it. The booklet will give you guidance and more information. Sounds Scary was developed for dogs that already have a phobia, but there is also Sound Sociable, which is designed for puppy's to help prevent the phobias occurring in the first place, and Sounds Soothing, which is designed to help prepare for the arrival of a new baby.
Finally, as hinted in the first paragraph, there are some management techniques you can use to limit the impacts whilst fireworks are going off. Preemptively closing curtains, making sure they've been out for the loo early on, and walking them during day light can all help, as can having the television or radio on to help smother the scary noises. Try to act as normal as possible during this time around your pet. You can also create a safe den for them using a covered crate or a table for them to retreat to when scared.
We hope this helps for anyone battling noise phobias with dogs and cats. Below is a short clip of Fern with a chew on her bed, whilst a fire work noise goes off from the sound system. If you play it with the sound on, you can hear it can now be played quite loudly and she isn't worried: