By Dr. Marty Becker
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
This Fourth of July, perhaps more than ever, Americans will be celebrating our freedom and heritage by filling the skies with the sights and sounds of spectacular fireworks. While we love pyrotechnics and this is a holiday all patriotic citizens look forward to, we need to remember that this is an extremely upsetting time for many pets.
While the human family is oohing and aahing in the back yard, the family pets may be frightened out of their wits and spend this weekend under the bed, in the bathtub or the basement, cowering, shaking, drooling and seeking safety and comfort. Some will injure themselves, or even get themselves into life threatening situations in their panic.
While cats are rarely affected, dogs often experience panic at loud noises such as thunder, gunfire and firecrackers.
"It makes a lot of sense for animals to be afraid of loud, sudden noises. In the wilds, noise of this magnitude would be correlated with some real danger, like a landslide or tornado," says Janice Willard, DVM. "We may be able to understand that a fireworks display is just entertainment, but for our pets, the fear is very real and related to basic survival instincts."
Dogs differ in their sensitivity to loud noises. Sirloin our black Labrador retriever, wouldn't flinch if a keg of gunpowder blew up beside him. But Scooter, our wirehaired fox terrier, treats loud sounds as if the grim reaper was calling - and there is no way she is going to answer.
Fireworks raise havoc with a dog's supersensitive hearing, causing some to jump out of apartment windows, leap or dig under fences, throw themselves through barriers, or chew their skin until it's raw. And they may also bolt out an open door to become lost but never found. If you think noise anxiety is not a problem, imagine standing in front of speakers at a Metallica concert with your hearing aids turned to full power. You get the picture.
It's not just the noise that bothers them, says Myrna Milani, a veterinarian and author of ``DogSmart.'' "There's a whole big scary event that comes with the noise of Independence Day."
Dog's senses are much more acute than ours. They hear, smell and sense things only imaginable to humans. Because their hearing is more sensitive at both ends of the spectrum, a bottle rocket to us seems like the first salvo of Armageddon to them. And the unpredictability of the noises is additionally alarming. There are also strange smells of gunpowder, objects streaking across the sky, blinding flashes of light, and darting children, all of which can trigger in this case a "fright or flight response."
Although we try to comfort our pets, Dr. Rolan Tripp, a veterinary behaviorist and adjunct professor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says, "Don't reward the fear." What has a calming effect is for them to see that you aren't freaking out. If you remain calm and don't baby them, they'll be closer to leaning how to handle loud noises.
"Do happy things to model a happy emotional state to your dog", says Willard. "Dogs are very aware of our emotional state and if you are worried, they can recognize this and it will increase their anxiety."
A 2001 study reported in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association found that previous experiences can affect whether dogs are afraid of loud noises. In addition, certain breeds such as collies, German shepherds, and hounds, such as beagles and basset hounds, seem to be more likely to have a fear reaction to loud noises.
The sound phobia is also common in sporting and working breeds because they've been bred to be hyper-alert. Experts say pet parents with these breeds of dogs should be extra careful this around the Fourth of July. Dogs adopted from shelters may be more likely to be frightened of noise such as fireworks, possibly because these dogs are more likely to have suffered traumatic experiences prior to adoption or may not have been as well socialized or exposed to a variety of sights and sounds in early life.
The best defense against Fourth of July problems is a good offense.
Professional trainers start socializing dogs and making possible negative experiences - such as fireworks and thunderstorms - a positive experience. If a potentially negative experience comes with tasty treats, then your pet is going to at least tolerate it, if not welcome it. This works best when started as a puppy, but don't give up hope if your dog is already an adult. New behaviors can be learned.
Other things you can do include:
_Progressive desensitization. A proven way to help your pet is to expose it to commercial recordings of fireworks and play them at gradually increasing volumes that are below your dog's fear threshold. Alternately, you can use newer digital recording equipment and record other problem noises that frighten your pets such as automobiles backfiring or gunshots. Designate a safe place in your house and play the recordings at low volume, again, below your dog's fear threshold (recognizing how acute their hearing is) and give praise and reassurance. As the volume and duration is increased during subsequent sessions, give them tasty treats so they have the expectation of a repeat treat. Initially play the recording for five minutes, then leave it on during daily activities as "normal" background noise. However, this is a lengthy process that needs to be done well in advance of the fear-generating situation and it also takes careful planning and monitoring in order to work.
_Mimic mommy. Mother dogs control and comfort their young by putting pressure on the bridge of their nose or behind their ears. You can mimic this by using a special head collar called a Gentle Leader. It goes around the nose and behind the ears. Although this was designed as a training collar, it has been found that some dogs find it comforting during storms or fireworks.
_Throw a slumber party. Remember when you were little and became afraid at night? To protect yourself, you pulled the covers over your head. The same thing works for pets. In times of trouble, dogs head for small, enclosed places. Milani recommends unzipping a sleeping bag near your pet's favorite lounging spot so that they can burrow inside and hide. If it smells like you, this will provide additional comfort.
_Give the dog a vacation. If you know your dog is afraid of loud noises and you have to leave your dog during this very scary time, make sure they are in a safe and secure place where they can't injure themselves or tear out of in a panic. Many of my clients simply board their animal in a veterinary hospital or pet resort for a few days.
_Open up the medicine chest. Although animal tranquilizers will typically calm an anxious pet, some dogs become so terrorized by the noise, nothing short of some great new veterinary prescribed anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications will keep them calm. Veterinarians also use herbal sedatives, acupressure and massage.
© 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.