Bonfire night is just around the corner and it’s NOW that we should be preparing our pets for the event.
As a veterinary nurse and animal behaviourist, I see lots of owners asking for help about a week or a day before bonfire night, which sadly is a bit too late.
Once the firework season has passed, work should begin on desensitisation and counter-conditioning to encourage better coping strategies in the long-term. But in the meantime, here are some tips for helping prepare your pets for the firework season now and during the event.
Managing the Environment
Create a safe haven well ahead of the event: Provided it is safe, this should be in a place that the pet usually retreats to at times of distress. Commonly this is under a piece of furniture but an open crate may be used. Taking cover in a bolt-hole is a coping strategy so avoid pulling them out. Enhance the area by draping a heavy blanket over the sides to deaden the sound and provide blankets and towels for digging and hiding under. Setting up food trails, scent and find games and activity feeders ahead of the events will provide mental enrichment and makes positive associations with the den.
For cats, as well as hiding, some cope by using 3D space. Cat trees with integrated retreats and upturned cardboard boxes with entrance cut-outs can provide safety zones.
For rabbits and other small mammals, make sure you bring the hutch indoors. Place a heavy blanket/cover around it to deaden the sound and to help prevent them seeing the bright lights which could startle them and cause fear.
Heavy curtains to absorb and block sound and light as well as playing background music can also help to disguise what is going on outside.
Pheromone Therapy: Dog-appeasing pheromone is associated with increased safety and security. Research shows that using Adaptil (by CEVA) in the location of a hide increases its use. It’s advisable to use it during the training period and throughout the firework season. Similarly Feliway Classic, another pheromone by CEVA, has been shown to help cats cope during a challenging event and increase security in the home.
To achieve the best therapeutic levels refer to the manufacturers instructions. Do have realistic expectations. These products are very much part of a plan to help your pet cope better but they are unlikely to provide a cure when used alone.
2. Interactions with your pet
Whilst stress often results in escape and hiding behaviours, a number of dogs will seek the company of their owner. Advice to “ignore them”, because of the potential for reinforcing fearful behaviours is more likely to cause greater distress. Emotions cannot be reinforced so providing some reassurance may help them.
Loud, low frequency sounds are difficult for cats to localise. Consequently they tend to show behaviour inhibition by hiding and keeping very still until the threat passes. Cats picked up at this time can exhibit a panic response and inflict serious injuries so leave them alone until the perceived threat has passed and they are no longer distressed.
Smaller mammals are likely to want to retreat too so plenty of hay and other bedding helps so they can use it to hide underneath it. Places food under boxes is another good idea to encourage a sense of safety.
Medication: Short-term prescription medication may be necessary to reduce acute responses to fireworks. If you feel that your dog (or cat) requires some help in the form of prescribed drugs it is better to make an appointment to chat this over with your vet.
Evidence is limited on the efficiency of some nutraceuticals so it is important that you have knowledge about choices you make. That said, some may have a place as part of a balanced approach. For example, alpha-casozepine, (Zylkene by Vetoquinol) has been shown to reduce anxiety in dogs and cats, & Pet Remedy is a herbal preparation containing Valerian and said to be helpful in creating a calm environment for all mammals. Both of these products can be purchased from your vet or at larger pet stores and online pharmacies.
4. Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning (DS/CC)
It isn’t a good time to begin work on DS/CC just before firework season or during it. But it should be part of your plan once the festivities are over. The idea is to play the sound of fireworks (at a very low volume) to your pet whilst they are doing something that they find pleasant. That might include petting them, grooming, playing, at feeding times or during training sessions whilst giving them treats. The sound effect should be realistic. (see the free download below). Also use a good sound system to help reproduce a realistic sound effect. Larger, better quality speakers produce a better sound. Importantly, it must not be too loud. Remember that animals have much better hearing than us. GRADUALLY increase the sound.
This process shouldn’t be rushed and may take some weeks. If your pet shows any signs of fear, go back to the volume setting where they were comfortable. Proceed more slowly. The aim is that with gradual increments, you can play the sound effect at a higher setting without them showing fear.
So now you’re ready – here is an overview of what you should be doing leading up to and during the event:
- Make the den comfortable and accessible in the quietest part of the house.
- Close the curtains, turn on the lights and put on some music with a steady reggae beat.
- Make sure that pets can’t escape. Keep doors, runs, cat-flaps and windows closed.
- Make sure that you let your cat and dog out to toilet before darkness falls and the festivities begin. Provide a litter tray indoors for your cat.
- For dogs, adding cooked pasta to their meal can help make them feel a carbohydrate induced fatigue and may help them sleep
- For dogs, give them something to chew to keep them occupied. Stuffed kongs are good.
- For cats and other pets, let them hide but beforehand encourage them to play and give activity feeders to help tire them.
- Sarah Heath, a World renowned behaviourist (who I was lucky to study under) and Dogs Trust have teamed up and provided free downloads of firework sound effects. I have made them available for you by clicking here
To understand desensitisation and counter conditioning download and read the article on how to incorporate DS/CC in to a long-term plan for your pet so that they have a less stressful time at future events.