The leaves are falling from the trees, the nights are drawing in fast and Bonfire Night is just around the corner. Year after year this proves to be a stressful time for both dogs and cats. The 2022 PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report suggests that 41 percent of dogs and 30 percent of cats show signs of distress during fireworks (PDSA, 2022). So, how can we make our pets more at ease during this stressful time?
Why is my pet scared of fireworks?
Fireworks are loud and unpredictable, especially if you are an animal who knows nothing about the Gunpowder Plot and the likelihood of fireworks in November. Dogs and cats also have a greater range of hearing than humans. Fireworks and bonfires also change the smell in the air, especially if you live near the location of a display.
If your pet experiences sudden loud noises and flashes of light as a threat, this will activate the “fight or flight” system in their body, releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
If your pet experiences sudden loud noises and flashes of light as a threat, this will activate the “fight or flight” system in their body, releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This system prepares their body to stay and “fight” or to run away by increasing their heart and breathing rates and redirecting blood to the muscles. All of this is accompanied by feelings of stress and the behaviours related to it.
Have you noticed that some pets react to the challenges of Bonfire Night, while others don’t? There are lots of factors that can increase or decrease the likelihood a pet will be affected, including:
- General temperament – are they nervous about other things too?
- Genetics – were their parents outgoing or nervous, for example?
- Age – this could be due to changes in hearing or the increased chance they have a degree of pain due to arthritic changes
- Underlying medical conditions that can exacerbate noise phobia
- Early experiences with fireworks and loud noises
How do I know if my pet is stressed?
Animals are individuals with their own idiosyncrasies, so telling if your pet is stressed can be difficult. But, in general, dogs tend to show signs of trembling, shaking, drooling, restlessness, pacing, panting, attention seeking, barking and whining when stressed. They may also try to escape or hide, which can often be mistaken or noticed as destruction. Dogs may also go off their food or toilet indoors, even when housetrained.
Some cats may try to hide or to escape and get away from the noise. Others may want to be close to you, or some may not want to be touched. Cats may also start to over-groom or scratch at themselves. They may also go off their food and toilet indoors or outside their litter tray when housetrained.
What should I do to prepare my pets for Bonfire Night?
Prevention is better than cure. So, if you have a new puppy, kitten, dog or cat, consider:
- Making sure you properly socialise and habituate your new pet to a variety of situations
- Not walking a puppy/dog after dark or taking it outdoors when there are firework displays
- Keeping kittens/cats inside (remembering to provide a litter tray)
- Letting the pet come to you if they need reassurance, but acting normally and remaining upbeat
- Putting the TV or radio on to mask the sounds or playing classical music
- Giving them a puzzle feeder, scattering feed or playing with them when the fireworks start to build positive associations with the noise
- Using sound therapy downloads such as “Sounds Scary” or “Sounds Sociable” regularly, so they get used to a variety of noises at different volumes
- Letting your pet hide if they wish
- Making sure you provide high hiding spaces for kittens/cats
Firework first aid
Bonfire Night is a few days away, and you suddenly remember that your pet was not all that keen last year – what should you do? It is important to understand that there are no quick fixes when it comes to preventing your pets from feeling stressed during Bonfire Night, but you can still help them.
It is important to understand that there are no quick fixes when it comes to preventing your pets from feeling stressed during Bonfire Night
Here are a few tips:
- Shut your curtains to limit the number of flashing lights your pet can see
- Play some classical music as it has been shown to reduce stress in dogs, or if they are in a room with you and you have the TV on, turn the volume up to cover the sounds of the fireworks
- Make sure dogs have been fed and walked before dark
- Keep cats indoors (don’t forget to provide a litter tray)
- Create a safe space – dogs might like a bed in a corner or an open crate with a blanket over it, for example. Cats will likely prefer a high-up hiding space: a hooded cat bed on your bed or the back of the sofa, for example. But remember, it is their choice whether to use them or not, so don’t shut them in
- If they are relaxed enough, play games with your pet or give them a puzzle feeder. This can help create a positive association with the noises
- Consider using a “thunder shirt”. This may help as they have been shown to lower the heart rate of stressed dogs
- Remain calm and act normally! If your pet wants to be right next to you, let them. Fear is an emotion, not a behaviour, so don’t worry that you are making things worse by offering a fuss if that’s what they want
- Get your dog or cat checked over by your veterinary surgeon to make sure no medical issues are exacerbating the problem
The key is not to panic. You can also discuss pheromonatherapy with your veterinary nurse, as this may help decrease your pet’s anxiety levels, or speak to your veterinary surgeon regarding medication if necessary. And remember, once this year’s festivities are out of the way, you can start preparing for next year.
You can also discuss pheromonatherapy with your veterinary nurse, as this may help decrease your pet’s anxiety levels, or speak to your veterinary surgeon regarding medication
Be prepared for next year – the long-term plan
January is a good time to start working on your pet’s firework problem. The year’s fireworks (Bonfire Night, Diwali, New Year and other celebrations) are over and you have a nice clear run with a much smaller chance of fireworks going off to start teaching your pets how to cope. You could make it a New Year’s resolution!
So, if you haven’t already, get your pet checked over by your veterinary surgeon. If your pet had to have medication this year, reacted very badly to the fireworks or has other issues, ask your veterinary surgeon for a referral to a qualified behaviourist who can assess your dog or cat and create a plan for you to work on.
You can also start to desensitise your pet to loud noises. This simply means working with your dog or cat to stop them feeling negatively about the noise. Once they aren’t bothered by the sound of fireworks, you can then start to associate the sounds with something your pet likes, such as food! There is a brilliant resource that walks you through this step by step called Sounds Scary, and, fantastically, it is free on the Dogs Trust website.
It is also crucial to make sure you are prepared and ready for every Bonfire Night in the future. Ensure that any new hiding places are added well in advance, that you randomly play classical music all year round and that any chance you have to help them is done at other times as well. Otherwise, the preparations themselves may become a predictor of something scary happening.