Expert Tips to Keep Your Pets Calm During July 4th Fireworks
Pro tip: Start training them before the holiday weekend
The Fourth of July and the accompanying barbecues, basking in the sun, and fireworks are upon us. For some, the fireworks are the best part of the holiday, but those loud noises and bright lights may go well into the night and cause some dogs and cats anxiety, stress, and illness, or even prompt them to run away.
If your dog or cat gets stressed out by fireworks or if you’re a new pet parent, keep reading. We’ve gathered expert advice to help your furry friend deal with all the pyrotechnics, including techniques to prepare yourself and your pet and even drugs you might consider giving your dog or cat to keep them calm.
How Do Fireworks Affect Pets?
Even though not all pets are bothered by fireworks displays, there are some that may “experience full-blown anxiety,” says Lisa Lippman, DVM, the director of virtual medicine at Bond Vet in the New York City area.
Some can go as far as harming themselves. Others may cling to their owners, destroy property, soil the house, or injure themselves when they experience fireworks, says Tristan Rehner-Fleurant, senior director of behavioral rehabilitation at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville, N.C. Frantic attempts to escape may cause dogs to chew, scratch, dig, and even jump out of windows.
So, Lippman says, it’s important to figure out how your pet reacts to noises to keep them calm and safe during holidays where fireworks are common.
How to Prepare Your Dog or Cat for Fireworks
Experts say pet owners can take multiple approaches to help pets feel safe around July Fourth. The approaches depend on the pet.
For example, for some pets with just mild stress during fireworks, “training and setting up a safe space in the home may be all that’s needed,” Lippman says. “However, for pets with severe stress, training can take a long time. If an episode of noise anxiety occurs in the meantime, it can interfere with all the progress made during training.”
It’s best to try this as soon as you can. “Training them early on in their puppy years is a good way to prevent noise aversion from starting, which your veterinarian can help you with,” Beers says. “A certified veterinary behaviorist would be helpful if one wants to avoid medications at first.”
There are some trainers who work with pets to help them stay calm during fireworks displays as well as any other events that include loud noises, such as thunderstorms. “So it doesn’t come quite as much as a surprise, you can change some of their responses to the sudden sounds by giving them an alternate association before the fireworks,” says Lizbeth Molloy, owner of and dog trainer at Keyrak Dog Club in Staten Island, N.Y.
Here are some training tips from the experts.
Occupy/Distract Your Pet
Start a few weeks, or ideally months, in advance by playing fireworks sounds at the lowest volume. While that’s playing, scatter some food or tasty treats on the floor, Molloy says. She says that desensitizes them to the experience as much as possible, and gives them “that alternate association where ‘Hey, big noises mean tasty treats!’” Repeat each day and slowly increase the volume of the sounds and continue to reward your dog for being uninterested in it. So by July Fourth, there will already be some sort of a baseline pattern of response.
If your pet starts to get anxious, stop playing the fireworks sounds and try again the following day at an even lower volume, Lippman says.
Make good things happen for your cat when the fireworks displays start, Buis says. If they’re hiding, “stop in for some verbal praise and treats every now and then, as long as they don’t seem more upset by it,” Buis says. If they’re not hiding, but they’re clearly anxious, keep them occupied by trying play sessions, food puzzles, or even training sessions
Set Up a Safe Place
It’s important to make sure that your pets are in a familiar setting to help keep them calm. Molloy suggests setting up a dark and quiet spot in your home. (If they’re crate trained, move the crate to that area as well.)
Sometimes pets already have a preferred hiding spot—for example, in the bathtub, under a particular bed, or in a closet—that they’ve gone to before during storms or fireworks. If so, Lippman suggests that it may be easiest to set up in this area because they already seem to feel safer there.
In this area, lay some comfort items and some of their favorite treats. If the area has windows, make sure they’re shut, and have any blinds or curtains closed.
Make sure your cat also has a safe space of their own, either a room or an area of the house with plenty of hiding spots, Buis says. Make sure their key resources like food, water, and litter box are nearby, so they aren’t forced to venture out. Buis also says dimming the lights and turning on some soft music or white noise can help calm your cat.
It’s best to stay home, and not go to the beach or a parade. According to Rehner-Fleurant, “loud noises, especially sudden percussive sounds, and unexpected bright lights can be very scary and overwhelming for many dogs.”
With all the different sights, sounds, smells, and heat, your dog may become overstimulated.
However, if you do have your pets outdoors, be vigilant. “Exposure to lit fireworks can potentially result in severe burns and/or trauma to the face and paws of curious pets,” Rehner-Fleurant says. “Even unused fireworks can pose a danger.” According to the ASPCA’s July Fourth safety tips, “many fireworks contain potentially toxic substances, such as potassium nitrate, arsenic, and other heavy metals.”
Don’t React Yourself
It may be hard not to jolt a bit when the fireworks start, but not reacting may help. Molloy suggests that if pet owners don’t respond to the sounds of the fireworks, that will help their dog or cat stay calm, too. “Attitude can really help the dogs be like, ‘Oh, mom’s not reacting. Maybe this isn’t as important as I thought it was,’” she says.
If they’re getting anxious and running around, it’ll give them the idea that there’s nothing happening.
Keep Your Pets Safe
Keep your dog leashed and try to be by your dog at all times. They may be used to going out to go to the bathroom in the yard without a leash, but fireworks can set them off, causing them to run away. Molloy suggests taking your dog out on their walk for that last potty run before the fireworks start.
If you have a fenced yard, make sure to look for any weak spots—don’t rely on it to keep your pet secured when it’s under stress.
“When spooked, they can dig under or climb over a fence that would normally securely contain them,” Rehner-Fleurant says. “Once loose, a panicked dog can run for miles without any awareness of where they are, so they’re unable to find the way home once they calm down.”
The noises may cause your pet to run and look for safety. “Every dog is a flight risk if they’re scared,” Molloy says. Just in case, make sure their dog collar tags and microchips have your up-to-date information.
Molloy suggests having at least two current pictures of your dog handy: one of them groomed and the other of them wet or dirty. This is a precautionary measure in case your pet does run away.
Medicines and CBD Oils
Pets with severe stress may need prescription medication for their safety and so they’re not scared during the fireworks displays. “Training would really only be effective when a pet is not in full-blown anxiety, and medications can help in the training process,” Lippman says.
Each time your pet hears the fireworks, they become more frightened, and “then it kind of can get worse usually over time rather than better,” Flynn says. “So that’s where sometimes working with your veterinarian to try to find any kind of medication option that can help reduce their fear and anxiety and stress is a good idea.”
White at NYC Veterinary Group recommends Sileo and says it is “our go-to medication for giving your dog noise reprieve.” The active ingredient in Sileo, dexmedetomidine, helps calm your dog by reducing specific reactions in their nervous system.
Booking an appointment with your veterinarian will help you find the best medication based on your pet’s symptoms and medical history.
Some prescribed medications that some of our veterinarians recommended are gabapentin, a pain medication that specifically has a sedating side effect; trazodone, an anti-anxiety drug; and fluoxetine, also an anti-anxiety drug. Before giving your dog or cat any over-the-counter medications, verify the medications and products with your trusted veterinarian.
Special Calming Clothing
Some owners find that specific clothing helps their cats and dogs feel calmer during stressful situations. An anxiety vest, such as a ThunderShirt, can help some pets by “mimicking swaddling, which is soothing,” Lippman says.
Anxiety vests are “like the equivalent of a weighted blanket for a person,” Bayazit says. This clothing can be used as an extra precaution for your pets or serve as an add-on to any anti-anxiety medication or remedy pet owners give their pets.
July Fourth should still be a holiday jam-packed with fun, but it’s important to be extra-cautious and create a safe environment for your pets.