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Pet Advice from our Vet

Scared of Fireworks

From our resident Director of Veterinary Services, Dr. Tim Watson, BVM&S MRCVS

Many of our dogs are scared of loud bangs such as gunshots and fire works. Some dogs hardly seem to notice them whilst others panic completely. It is a problem that seems to have many answers, of which few, if any, seem to work.

Previous “Therapy”

In the past we have used sedatives to try and calm our little friends down and because of their lack of response we have assumed this has worked. Recent research in this field however has shown that although with the best of intentions we have been doing precisely the wrong thing.

Sedation in these cases has the effect of a chemical straight jacket. The animal still experiences all the fear, but is unable to do anything about it. This is a bit like being held down when someone tickles you. The next time the stimulus is experienced the mental reaction is worse (called windup).

By sedating our patients we have inadvertently been increasing their anxiety each and every time. We have been sensitising their brains to the stimulus. All that we have been achieving is allaying our guilt, because the dog is quiet we think that we are doing the right thing, whereas we have been doing the opposite and been harming that which we have sought to protect and relieve.

New concepts in fear “therapy”

So what can we do about this? Well again recent research in the field has been very helpful, many ways have been found to improve the situation. Not all work for every individual, and a little bit of persistence is required to find the right balance. The most obvious and easiest thing to do is to avoid the problem, send doggy off to stay with friends or family away from the noise. This is easy with local firework events but less so around bonfire night or during thunderstorms, thus we need to take action to ease the problem as much as we can.

The problem needs to be addressed in three distinct areas. Our relationship with the dog, what the dog can do for itself, how we can alter the dogs’ brain, chemically and psycho-therapeutically.

Relationships:

Do not try and calm the dog down. Whispering sweet nothings into its ear and pandering to the increased desire to be close to us reinforces the behaviour. We are telling them that it’s OK to be scared because it’s a very scary thing and that we are also scared as we want to be close and huddle with them. So don’t do it, ignore the aberrant behaviour and behave toward the dog as though absolutely nothing was out of the ordinary. Do not reward the dog for the behaviour pattern that you do not want expressed. You are harming your dog. This is the single most important point, it is the pillar on which all else will rest. Failure here will negate any other work.

If you want to understand more about reward processes I will be writing about them further at a later date, however there is a lot of research out there to go and read.

Doggy behaviour:

The dog will try and seek shelter from the stimulus (or escape). They need a dark place that has a low roof three solid sides and a small entrance hole that they can look out of. Under a table with a blanket over the top, under the stairs, that sort of thing. Often the lower the better. Make sure that this type of arrangement is accessible.

The other response if caught in the open is to escape, it is very serious. When a dog is scared in the open it will run away from the stimulus. If you go out when there are fireworks going off and your dog has any fear of noise keep it on the lead at all times.

Mind Bending:

There are many levels to be achieved here from very mild to fairly heavy-handed. Before we discuss the varied drugs and mind bending therapies available to us, a little understanding of what is going on in the brain needs to be gleaned.

Stress is a behavioural and physiological response that occurs when a threshold is reached. The threshold is reached when single or cumulative inputs to the brain (stimuli) get to a certain level. This level is different for every single individual. There are other threshold responses above stress culminating in total panic.
What this means is that not all fear stimuli will create stress. Some fear stimuli are very small. However if enough of these occur at the same time then “stress” occurs. A single stimulus may be enough to create stress all by itself. For example when I see a spider, or hear a dentists drill.

Each of our dogs has different threshold responses for different stimuli. So in the treatment of stress to an audible stimulus there are two routes available to us. One is to reduce the stimulus, like wearing ear plugs when the baby is screaming, and two is to increase the threshold at which stress occurs, like getting used to hearing the baby screaming (the second child!) or having a large glass of Chardonnay.
There’s more too, every time “stress” is induced by a stimulus, the stress threshold to that stimulus is reduced (windup). So it takes less and less to send doggy up the wall. Once the animal is in a “stressed state” then treatment becomes impossible with the stimulus still present.

In dogs the aim is to adjust the threshold in the brain to a given stimulus there are many ways from generally raising the threshold to all responses to raising the threshold to a specific response (a bit like a mental vaccination!). Below are various options.

1) Very mild.

We have begun to use pheromones from dogs; the one with the most use in these cases is dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP). This is a chemical released from the nipples of lactating bitches; its aim is to quieten puppies. The pathway in the brain for this pheromone remains open in adult dogs. The action of the pheromone is subtle and it raises the threshold at which a stress response occurs to any given stimulus. It is a long-term solution and we would not expect to see results in less than six weeks, though occasionally responses are faster. There are three available formulations a “plug in diffuser”, a spray, and a collar.

2) More targeted drugs and herbal products.

Scullcap and Valerian: Have been used as “anxiolytics” (a drug that relieves anxiety) for many hundreds of years. They can be extremely effective

Rescue Remedy: Is a “bach flower” remedy with calming properties, mechanism of action unknown but often has a very potent calming effect on dogs.

Diazepam: Has the benefit of not just calming things down and sedating the patient, it also reduces memories of stressful stimuli during the period of use and thus reduces windup. Diazepam must however be used with real care, it can occasionally cause exactly the opposite of this i.e. excitement, and equally as the drug wears off very occasionally aggression is noted in the patient.

Various homeopathic remedies: Various remedies are available and as with all things homeopathic; what works with one individual may not work with another. One treats the patient not the symptoms.

3) Aversion Therapy:

Some very clever vets with a special interest in doggy behaviour have created some products specifically for the long-term therapy and desensitisation of noise induced fear. These are on CD and called “Sounds Scary” they are available from the Internet and come with full instructions. This takes time.

Conclusion:

I am unable to emphasise enough that this is not a “fireworks night” problem. Treatment for misplaced fear is important, it needs careful planning and thought for each and every patient. Quick fixes are like all things that look too good to be true.

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