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.