Fearing the Fireworks: Wisconsin Vet Shares Tips for Anxious Pets During 4th of July

When neighbors were shooting targets near his home north of Fort Atkinson, Bill Stork’s dog was likely crouched in the closet under his wife’s clothes.

This is where Token, a 13-year-old Australian Shepherd blue-heeler mix, feels safest hearing nearby gunshots or other loud noises.

And there are going to be a lot of loud noises – fireworks.

Pet owners may know their furry friends who cower when pyrotechnics light up the night sky and go boom after boom. Stork, owner and operator of Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic, recently joined WPR’s “The Larry Meiller Show” to share tips on how pet owners can better take care of their fearful pets when the growl begin.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Larry Meiller: Why do some pets have trouble with fireworks or other loud noises?

Bill Stork: It can be multifactorial. It may be how they are wired. They may develop an association with these sounds. I don’t think that’s the whole point, but there are times when we inadvertently create this anxiety in them by the way we react to loud noises and sounds.

Interestingly, it’s not universal. It’s not scientific. My personal observation is that I have known dogs that were really worried about thunderstorms. I have known dogs who were worried about rain on the windows. But this same dog may not laugh if you shoot a cannon next to it.

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LM: What could we do to make this easier for our pets?

SB: We know that this weekend people are going to be setting off fireworks, and they don’t necessarily wait until nightfall to start doing it. In this case, at the beginning of the day, you work as hard as possible to exhaust them. And if that means taking them for walks around the neighborhood, if that means taking them swimming, if that means feeding them chew toys, deer antlers, KONG balls that have been frozen and filled with good things throughout the day…to wear their brains and bodies outside.

When the fireworks go off, there are dogs (who will) look for a place in the basement, and they will hide behind the toilet or under a bed. If that’s where they want to go, and when they get there, it becomes tolerable, so we make that place accessible to them and do our best not to overreact ourselves. Because one of the things we know is that anxiety can be contagious. So the more we react, the more they will react.

It’s the time of year when our phones are ringing nonstop, asking “Can we give them something for the anxiety?”

There are a few different pharmaceuticals that we can use. One is a pure sedative and the other is as close to situational anti-anxiety medication as it gets. The popular request is: “Give them something just to relax”. It’s a fairly narrow tightrope for us to walk.

Once they start feeling that stress, it’s really hard to get them to back down. So we recommend people to start even a day or two in advance. If we use pharmaceuticals, give a morning and an evening before the 4th of July.

LM: What do you think of compression or anxiolytic wraps?

SB: The answer is, for some, absolutely. It really makes a difference for some dogs. (That) could be a thunder shirt by brand, or it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes you can just buy a snug fit, or some people will wrap them in bandages and stuff like that.

LM: What behavioral methods might work on such anxiety?

SB: The things we talked about: Our attitude can fuel their attitude. It’s a big problem. Wearing them is a big deal.

Counter-conditioning would be for us to try to reassign a new emotion to those loud noises. Well, that’s a noble notion. But you have to start early. Be patient. It takes us time. So, for example, on the first note that they might be reacting to a loud noise, but they haven’t gotten worse with rapid breathing, pacing, gasping and stuff like that, you reward them in an effort to attribute a new reaction to an old stimulus.