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With both the Halloween and the long firework season almost upon us, now is an appropriate time to be thinking ahead about how your pet might feel during these celebrations and festivals. For many dogs and cats, loud noises (in particular fireworks), can cause fear and worry, and people in scary costumes can be frightening and unsettling – even when it’s people they know. Whilst it may be too late right now (in October), to start the longer-term behavioural modification training techniques that are recommended (such as desensitisation and counter conditioning), there are a myriad of changes that you can employ to help your pet cope better in the upcoming weeks.

Allow them a “safe space”

Limiting any detrimental effect of fireworks and other stressful things on your pet’s health and wellbeing is a pivotal feature when putting any measure in place. Practically speaking, for dogs this likely translates into providing a suitable hideaway location, where your dog is relatively shielded from both the visual and auditory effects of fireworks. This hideaway should essentially be chosen by your dog and may, for example, be behind a sofa or underneath a table. Alternatively, an indoor crate draped in a heavy, thick, soundproof blanket would be a suitable example. The hideaway should be familiar to the dog and also located somewhere that is easily accessible.

As an independent species, our cats may prefer to source their own “safe space” – therefore wherever they choose to seek solace, should be encouraged, and additional sound proofing offered where possible. For many cats this may be a spot up high, or a covered over area.

Keep them indoors

For cats in particular, many owners will prefer to limit outdoor access and keep their cats indoors during firework season and while Halloween trick or treating is occurring. The sounds of fireworks, or spooky strangers, may cause cats anxiety and stress with a result that they flee and run from any perceived danger. As well as keeping them safely indoors at “peak scary times”, it can be helpful to ensure that your cat’s microchip details are maintained up to date in case your cat loses its bearings and ends up becoming disorientated and lost.

For dogs, ensure their evening walk happens before any fireworks or “trick or treating” starts, to minimise the chance of them being frightened and running off.

Calming products

Pheromone diffusers are also likely to be helpful in creating a calm and reassuring atmosphere and thereby managing your pet’s stress, fear, and in severe cases noise phobia. Pheromones are naturally occurring chemical signals, which are secreted by animals to communicate different types of messages to themselves or others. They can also exert a calming influence on animal behaviour. These pheromone treatments are available in different products for cats and dogs, and have proven successful in reassuring pets with sound sensitivities. Use should be started at least a few days ahead of the anticipated required need, locating them close to the chosen hideaway or safe space for maximum benefit.

There are also on the market, a number of natural calming products, containing supplements and ingredients which may alter the brain’s chemical balance (in terms of a shift towards positive “happy” neurotransmitters). In doing so, these supplements may in some dogs and cats help to promote well-being and make your pet feel calmer, thereby reacting less severely to any noise or disturbance.

Anecdotally, some owners may find Thundershirts useful in their dogs. Such shirts are designed to wrap tightly around the dog and in doing so, promote an enhanced level of physical comfort.

Act normal

While it can be tempting to try to distract your pet with affection and fuss, some behaviourists are concerned that, if taken to extremes, this may cause other issues. Ideally, as owners we would remain calm, steady and behave in the ways our pets have come to expect, thereby hoping to convey and signal to our dogs, that there is in fact, nothing really to be concerned about. If they are distressed, though, then it is OK to comfort them.

Having the television or radio on at a louder than normal setting, may help to mask and lessen some of the loud, unpredictable firework sounds.

Ask us about medication

If your pet is an extreme worrier around fireworks, then it maybe in their best interests to consider some short-term prescription “anti-anxiety” medication. This may help lessen the detrimental effect that stress has on your pet. Such medication can be prescribed by one of our vets, after discussion of the circumstances and following a clinical examination of your pet. Anti-anxiety and amnesic (reducing memory) medications, have proved very effective over the past decade or so and are both widely prescribed and successful employed for many pets with noise phobias at this time of year. Such medications are best given ahead of any anticipated noise stress, although do also have some uses in blunting future fears if given within 1 hour of any unexpected stressful noisy event.

In the long term

For pets with more profound noise phobias, (sadly, many of which worsen with repeated exposure to noise), once the end of year celebrations are over and done with, attention and time should be put into engaging in a programme of desensitisation and counter conditioning. This will likely be best achieved through consultation with a dedicated, qualified clinical animal behaviourist. Practically speaking, such desensitisation programmes translate into, exposing your pet to increasing volumes of the stressful noise, over many weeks to months. Over time, they come to learn and realise that such noises pose no threat. There are many free resources out there on the internet and through a very slow and steady exposure programme, many pets will ultimately become far less anxious to noises they once were petrified of.

For such programmes to be successful, your pet will need to remain in a positive state of mind. As such, the continued use of calming supplements (or in extreme cases, more chronic anti-anxiety oral medication), may be beneficial.

If you are worried about your pet’s reaction to the sights and sounds around Halloween and fireworks season, we are here to help. We can help to find the best approach for you and your pet, making “spooky season” less stressful.