Imagine your worst nightmare. Now imagine that you have to experience your worst nightmare about a two dozen times a year including about 9 days in a row every summer. Your loved ones do everything they can to help you through the horrible experience, but there is only so much they can do. They can’t stop the nightmare itself and most of those nightmares happen on days that no one can predict. Those unpredictable days are the worst because the most effective way your family can help you takes two hours to start helping you feel less scared and works best if given well before your nightmare starts occurring. Your fear doesn’t even have to be rational to be terrifying, some people would be peeing their pants if they were dropped into a room full of garter snakes.
This is what some dogs that are terrified by fireworks experience every year. I have one of those dogs. When I can predict fireworks it’s not so bad, I give her medicine 2 hours before I anticipate fireworks, have high-value food ready for counter conditioning and distraction, turn up music, apply lavender essential oil to a favorite resting place and take time off work so I can stay up with her. During predictable stretches of fireworks like near 4th of July, she actually improves over the week.
The bigger problem is the fireworks on random nights throughout the year, like when my neighbors set off over a dozen fireworks on December 2nd. Her medicine takes 2 hours to reach full effect, so when I give the medicine as soon after the first bang as I can, the fireworks might be over by the time her meds kick in. In the meantime, no matter what I do to help her, she is terrified and trembling. During these times she is over threshold and is being sensitized to fireworks despite the fact that I am doing everything else I can to help her.
I’ve counter conditioned her to the legal fireworks. Many dogs can be counter conditioned using an electronic recording to the other fireworks. Unfortunately, Astrid is able to detect the difference between electronic recordings and the real fireworks and is already ease enough with electronic recordings to relax and nap through electronic recordings of fireworks even when played at loud volumes. I’ve tried pheromones. I make sure I have some Trazodone in the house at all times. I’ve installed some soundproofing in the home, covered the windows, created a safe retreat area and done as many of the expert recommendations as I can. But all of this cannot fully combat the window shaking booms on random nights from my neighbors’ illegal fireworks, especially when they occur on a walk where we do not have the benefit of any of the sound dampening measures. She will still be shaking and terrified at our feet, despite our best efforts whenever people choose to set off fireworks on random days.
How bad could a little firework show really be?
Storengen et al. found 39% of dogs were fearful of loud noises such as fireworks, gunshots, and thunderstorms. Others studies have estimated the fear of fireworks to be as low as 20% to as high as 50 %. A study done in New Zealand found that 6 percent of the dogs and cats in the study had received a firework related injury (Walker et al.). Fear of these three sources of noise was highly correlated, dogs that were afraid of one where likely to be afraid of the other two. Fortunately, gunshots can often be avoided by not going near areas people are hunting or near shooting ranges and thunderstorms tend to be predicted by meteorologists. No such luck with fireworks shot off in non-professional displays on days not typically associated with fireworks. The days surrounding 4th of July are typically the busiest time for lost pets for many shelters every year with many of these cases being suspected of spooking at fireworks. How many more cases happened during the rest of the year after random fireworks on a night the pet parents thought it was safe to let their dog enjoy their backyard?
Many people also suffer during fireworks. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of veterans are diagnosed with PTSD and many are triggered by fireworks. Shawn Gourley, the co-founder of Military with PTSD, provides signs for veterans that asks neighbors to be courteous with their fireworks. Gourley says “It isn’t to stop fireworks. What it is, is any day leading up to July 4 and the days following July 4. If you’re going to be setting off fireworks if you could just give the veterans a heads up. It’s the unexpected fireworks that is what bothers them, what can trigger (PTSD).” Some veterans describe their experience during unexpected fireworks as causing overwhelming feelings of terror. Many can cope with the fireworks done on specific holidays, but when some neighbor decides to shoot them off at an irregular time of day or some random day during the year, they cause some of their neighbors and many pets to live their worst nightmare and become sensitized so that their fear will be worse the next time a neighbor sets off fireworks. Here is an article about veterans’ experiences with fireworks.
Fireworks also cause harm in other ways. According to the National Fire Protection Association, every year fireworks in the United States cause about 18,500 fires causing 43 million dollars in property damage and 12,900 injuries. Only 2 out of 5 fires caused by fireworks are reported on July 4th.
On September 2, 2017, a Washington teenager went hiking with some friends in the scenic Columbia River Gorge and brought along some fireworks which he lit and threw into a canyon while he and his friends laughed. This started the Eagle Creek Fire which burned over 48,000 acres and cost 18 million dollars to fight. Hundreds of people had to evacuate and their homes were in danger. The area that burned was a hot tourist attraction and the fire has cost local businesses millions. The nearest metro area with roughly 2.4 million people suffered from poor air quality while the fire was being fought and many had to cancel outdoor plans. The boy is now on 5 years probation with 1,920 hours of community service and was ordered to pay 36 million in restitution.
What can be done?
If your dog is afraid of fireworks, consider trying some of these tips. Not every single tip will help every dog, so try them and evaluate if they helped your dog.
- Some dogs can be effectively counter conditioned using electronic recordings of fireworks. In this study, 66 % of owners who followed the counter conditioning and DAP use as instructed noticed improvements in how their dog handled fireworks. Click here for a YouTube video by Trailblazing Tails provides a quick explanation on how to do counter conditioning for fireworks.
- Ask your veterinarian for medication, but do not accept Acepromazine. Check this link to understand why Acepromazine is not an appropriate drug for fear-related problems. See the references section for studies on treating firework fears with medication.
- Play music or a movie to mask the sound of fireworks.
- Cover windows so the flashes are not visible.
- Provide something tasty to chew on or throw a treat party after every bang.
- Some dogs may be helped by pheromone products such as DAP or Adaptil (Levine et al.)
- Some people go on vacation somewhere that firework bans are enforced during predictable firework timeframes.
- This blog by ILLIS Animal Behavior Consulting provides many more suggests and cites a very comprehensive list of scientific studies.
How can I set off fireworks and negatively impact my neighbors less?
Please set off fireworks only the normal firework related holidays in your country so that those negatively impacted by the booms can make plans to help them cope with the noise. If your fireworks are illegal, these are the best days to set them off for your own sake because there is protection in numbers. On these normal firework related holidays, the law enforcement is not able to enforce the law as effectively as they can on other days because of the sheer numbers of people shooting illegal fireworks.
Please set them off in a responsible manner that takes potential fire danger into account. Do not let teenagers or younger children play with fireworks unsupervised. Please do not let your children wander over in front of other houses to set them off without first asking your neighbors permission. Please clean up the firework debris which is toxic to animals and may contain heavy metals and carcinogens which can contaminate our water supply and soil (Licudine et al.). Consider finding quiet fireworks. Consider going to a scheduled professional firework show instead.
What can you do to help your community?
Help us get a more effective ban on loud fireworks and improve enforcement. Help us show our neighbors that illegal fireworks are not welcome in our community, especially loud illegal fireworks on random days. Many of us who have a loved one that is fearful of fireworks need to stay inside with our loved one to help comfort them and keep them safe. This means we identify which houses are setting off the illegal fireworks. If you are lucky enough to not be personally impacted by illegal fireworks, please consider helping out your neighbors by identifying the homes setting off illegal fireworks, record video evidence if possible and report the information to the police.
Let’s work together for a solution. I would love for fireworks to be sold in an amusement park/festival-like setting were the fireworks must be detonated at the festival. By setting it up in a controlled environment we could address many of the issues and allow for less restrictive bans on fireworks in this setting. I get the thrill of setting off these fireworks, but we need to be responsible in how and when we set these off so that we do the least harm to others and the environment.
If you or a loved one have been negatively impacted by illegal fireworks, please share your story. Please share a video of your terrified animal on social media so that those who are setting these fireworks off might see the horrible cost of their fun. Let’s make these stories go viral so that lawmakers, law enforcement, firework sellers, and buyers cannot ignore the damage of fireworks.
Linn Mari Storengen, Frode Lingaas, Noise sensitivity in 17 dog breeds: Prevalence, breed risk and correlation with fear in other situations, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 171, 2015, Pages 152-160, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2015.08.020.
Emily J. Blackwell, John W.S. Bradshaw, Rachel A. Casey, Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 145, Issues 1–2, 2013, Pages 15-25, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016815911200367X
AR Dale, JK Walker, MJ Farnworth, SV Morrissey & NK Waran (2010) A survey of owners’ perceptions of fear of fireworks in a sample of dogs and cats in New Zealand, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 58:6, 286-291, DOI: 10.1080/00480169.2010.69403 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00480169.2010.69403
Katriina Tiira, Sini Sulkama, Hannes Lohi, Prevalence, comorbidity, and behavioral variation in canine anxiety, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 16, 2016,
Pages 36-44, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.008.
Elizabeth DePompei, Fireworks Season Can Trigger PTSD for Veterans, Associated Press https://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/06/28/fireworks-season-can-trigger-ptsd-veterans.html?fbclid=IwAR03m5sHDyyGq35GT-DoDsNc0Ycz9HYr4lZP_oFIaP_ZVdeVzzG4ADUb8L4
Licudine JA, Yee H, Chang WL, Whelen AC. Hazardous metals in ambient air due to new year fireworks during 2004-2011 celebrations in Pearl City, Hawaii. Public Health Rep. 2012;127(4):440-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366381/
National Fire Protection Agency-fireworks safety. https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/By-topic/Seasonal-fires/Fireworks
Steph Yin. Quiet Fireworks’ Promise Relief for Children and Animals, New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/science/july-4-fireworks-quiet.html
Treatment Related Studies for relieving noise-associated fears
Amy L. Pike, Debra F. Horwitz, Heidi Lobprise, An open-label prospective study of the use of l-theanine (Anxitane) in storm-sensitive client-owned dogs, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2015, Pages 324-331, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.04.001.
Crowell-Davis et al. (2003). Use of clomipramine, alprazolam, and behavior modification for treatment of storm phobia in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2003 Mar 15;222(6):744-8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12675296
Diane Frank, Guy Beauchamp, and Clara Palestrini. (2010) Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 236:12, 1308-1316 https://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.236.12.1308
Gary Michael Landsberg, Isabelle Mougeot, Stephanie Kelly, Norton W. Milgram,
Assessment of noise-induced fear and anxiety in dogs: Modification by a novel fish hydrolysate supplemented diet, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 10, Issue 5,
2015, Pages 391-398, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.05.007.
Korpivaara, M., Laapas, K., Huhtinen, M., Schöning, B., Overall, K. (2017) Dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel for noise-associated acute anxiety and fear in dogs—a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study Veterinary Record 180, 356. https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/180/14/356
Levine, ED., Mills, DS. (2008) Long-term follow-up of the efficacy of a behavioural treatment programme for dogs with firework fears. Veterinary Record 162, 657-659. https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/162/20/657
Nicole Cottam, Nicholas H. Dodman,
Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 119, Issues 1–2, 2009,
Pages 78-84, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2009.03.014. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016815910900104X
Nicole Cottam, Nicholas H. Dodman, James C. Ha,
The effectiveness of the Anxiety Wrap in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia: An open-label trial, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2013, Pages 154-161, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2012.09.001. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787812001190
Nina Rachel Cracknell, Daniel Simon Mills,
An evaluation of owner expectation on apparent treatment effect in a blinded comparison of 2 homeopathic remedies for firework noise sensitivity in dogs,
Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 6, Issue 1, 2011, Pages 21-30, ISSN 1558-7878,
Seksel, K. and Lindeman, M. (2001), Use of clomipramine in treatment of obsessive‐compulsive disorder, separation anxiety and noise phobia in dogs: a preliminary, clinical study. Australian Veterinary Journal, 79: 252-256. doi:10.1111/j.1751-0813.2001.tb11976.x https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1751-0813.2001.tb11976.x
Theresa L. DePorter, Gary M. Landsberg, Joseph A. Araujo, Jennifer L. Ethier, David L. Bledsoe, Harmonease Chewable Tablets reduces noise-induced fear and anxiety in a laboratory canine thunderstorm simulation: A blinded and placebo-controlled study,
Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2012, Pages 225-232, ISSN 1558-7878,
I have listed just a few of the studies on noise related phobias. For a comprehensive list of treatment options and studies on addressing Fireworks fear in dogs check this blog by ILLIS Animal Behavior Consulting. https://illis.se/en/nine-ways-to-reduce-firework-and-thunder-phobia-in-dogs/?fbclid=IwAR1Pa3RyK_7lfA41IB8IDBaepgxQt-u9jr3GQUuoOf9ecextYYrZMa3_Kxw