Monday, June 18, 2012

How to help dogs cope with fireworks

I like to celebrate the 4th of July and LOVE a good fireworks show.

Yet,  I can't convince my dogs that our block is not being invaded by monsters from outer space.
They run from window to window every time there is an explosion- barking at every bang, dutifully protecting our homestead from bombs and missile attacks.
I believe they are not an exception--4th of July can be rough on our pets. Many are terrified.

Tips to help you & your dogs deal with the 4th of July

Be sure your pets are wearing ID tags  & are microchipped.
No one ever makes plans to lose their pet.....yet  it happens.

Consider desensitization before the 4th of July. 
Training is time consuming and needs to start early, but noise phobias are not healthy for dogs, and they do not get better without active training. 
In desensitization or counterconditioning  the dog is exposed to the stimuli (lights, vibrations and sounds of the fireworks) at a low enough intensity such that they don't feel threatened. The intensity is gradually turned up--while rewarding a " state of calmness" with food, favorite games, love, or shifting the dog's focus by engaging the pet in an alternative activity ( by giving simple commands the dog excells at executing).  The intensity of the stimuli should be turned down immediately if the pet exhibits signs of anxiety. 

Practically speaking one would play a video of  fireworks or a CD at a very very low volume.....slowly turning  the speakers  up--Only If the pet acts and looks relaxed. There are lots to chose from on You Tube, and professionally made CDs are avaialble for sale online.

The speakers are turned down at the very first sign of panting or other signs of fear.

This is sort of like "the frog in boiling water" story, according to which-- if you put a frog in boiling water it will of course immediately jump out to escape the danger.  Yet if you put it into cool and pleasant water and very gradually turn up the heat, the frog won’t notice until  the water is boiling. Or so the story goes.
Scared chihuahua puppy
 Since I am actually fond of frogs, I am not advocating boiling them-- but I do find the analogy useful in this context:  the goal to work towards is a dog immersed in sounds and sensations of the fireworks and yet feeling relaxed.

Baby steps!

Create a safe haven  where the dog can escape to-this might be an airline carrier, a closet, a bathroom or the space under your bed. Window coverings should be closed and music  played to mask the sounds. There is a fine line between rewarding the "state of anxiety" with attention thus reinforcing the undesirable fearful behavior,  and a calm owner’s comforting presence to help a noise- phobic dog cope with overwhelmingly scary stimuli.

I have no experience with the Thundershirt, but on some levels it makes, I would like to hear from those who use it.

Medications: check with your veterinarian before administering any of the following:

Over the counter:
  • For small dogs an oral dosage of  0.5 - 1 mg once a day.
  • For medium-sized dogs 1 - 3 mg of melatonin by mouth, about 2 times a day.
  • For large sized dogs  the amount can vary between 3 to 9 mg.
          Benadryl (diphenhydramine)-- free of  pain relievers (acetaminophen is common in combination allergy drugs) and decongestants

I have no personal experience with melatonin, though I am of the school of thought of " If it can't hurt, why not try it?"  Benadryl does cause sedation, which does not make it anxiolytic.

By prescription:
  • Alprazolam (Xanax): one of my favorite anxiolytic agents in the same family as valium. It will reduce anxiety if administered several hours before the stressful event, but can also cause paradoxical excitation, incoordination,  or not work at all. 
  • Acepromazine: does not relieve anxiety, per se. -it causes the pet to feel too tired to act on it. This drug is not as safe or effective at reducing anxiety as Xanax and  it depresses blood pressure.
Ideally, one experiments with the medications before they are needed, in order to avoid surprises.
Be sure to call the office well ahead of time. We will not be able to prescribe any drug to a pet who has not been evaluated in  12 months, is elderly,  or has a  medical disorder such as a heart condition.

Wishing you and your family a safe and enjoyable 4th of July!