Thunder and Lightning and Fireworks, OH MY!
Dr. Adrienne Hergen DVM
Shirlington Animal Hospital

With warmer weather already here and the official start of summer fast approaching it is time to start thinking about summertime anxiety triggers when it comes to our furry companions.  Fireworks and intense thunderstorms can be a source of anxiety and fear for some dogs and cats.  The reactions can vary in severity from mild shaking to very destructive and dangerous behaviors.  Some signs of anxiety are pacing, trembling, panting, drooling, attention-seeking, hiding, barking/vocalizing, and bolting.  To get away, animals will often hide behind furniture, go to the basement, or get in the bath tub.  It can be difficult for them to identify the source of the noise and therefore inside animals may try to get outside and animals outside may be frantic to get indoors.  In the most extreme cases some animals injure themselves by breaking out of their crate or even jumping through glass windows.

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 very important to always 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. 

Nervous pets tend to drink more water so make sure that plenty is available to them.  In addition to hotter weather during the summer, the onset of strong thunderstorms can increase the likelihood of power outages, leading to warmer temperatures inside.

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 serious 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 don’t provide an immediate solution to the problem.   Planning ahead is important, it is always easier to prevent a fearful reaction rather than reverse one.

This column just provides you with some information and possible solutions for pets that suffer from anxiety related to fireworks and/or thunderstorms.  If you have additional questions or concerns please contact your veterinarian at Shirlington Animal Hospital and we will be more than happy to help make the summer and holidays enjoyable for your entire family.