by Adrienne Hergen, DVM
According to national statistics, more pets go missing around the 4th of July than any other time of year. If possible, try not to leave your pets home alone during firework events and thunderstorms. Cats and dogs should be brought indoors and if you have to take your dog out during these times always keep them on a leash so that they don’t have the opportunity to bolt and run away. Make sure all of your pets are wearing collars with ID tags that contain your phone number. We also recommend microchipping as another permanent form of identification. All shelters, rescues, and veterinarians should have the ability to scan for a microchip. It is imperative always to remember to register your pet’s microchip with the manufacturer so that if they are lost you can be contacted and reunited with your pet.
There are a number of things you can do to try and relieve some of your pet’s anxiety. If they are accustomed to staying in a crate, this can serve as a safe haven and might be all that is necessary to help them relax. Synthetic pheromone sprays and collars (for dogs – Adaptil collar, for cats – Feliway spray or diffusers) are also available which can have a calming effect. Some animals respond very well to pressure wraps such as Thundershirts or other clothing solutions like ear muffs and calming caps to cover an animal’s eyes. This may be helpful to reduce auditory and visual stimulation.
While it is not always possible to plan ahead, particularly in regards to thunderstorms, there are some behavioral modifications, classical counter conditioning techniques, and desirable coping responses that can be taught and implemented. It isn’t possible to control the intensity of fireworks or thunderstorms, but controlling other factors can help. Being a farther distance from the fireworks can be less intimidating as can keeping your pet inside during a firework event or thunderstorm. Music or having the television on may disguise the noise.
Classical counter conditioning can create a positive association with the anxiety inducing events. Give high-value food rewards such as canned food or peanut butter or offer your pet their favorite toy or food puzzle. The goal is for them to associate fireworks/thunderstorms with pleasant rewards rather than fear and anxiety. Teaching a desirable coping response such as retreating to a safe place (e.g. crate, closet, small room) during the fireworks or storm gives them a sense of security and confidence. Blankets to help muffle the sound and pheromone diffusers can provide natural motivation for your pet to seek out this location.
If all else fails and the anxiety is more severe, medications can be helpful in certain situations. A short acting anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax, can be given before the event occurs to try and minimize negative responses. Some pets that suffer from more severe and constant anxiety may benefit from medications that are given on a regular basis rather than just situationally. It should be noted though that these drugs can take weeks to reach a therapeutic level in the bloodstream, so they do not provide an immediate solution to the problem. Planning ahead is important, it is always easier to prevent a fearful reaction rather than reverse one.
Adrienne Hergen, DVM practices at Shirlington Animal Hospital, 2770 S. Arlington Mill Dr., Arlington, VA 22206, (703) 570-6600, shirlingtonanimalhospital.com.