By Anna Bradley
October 31 (and the following week up until November 5 here in the United Kingdom) might be exciting, colourful and full of fun and entertainment, particularly for youngsters, but for pets and pet parents it can be a stressful time. The issue has been compounded in recent years, no thanks to the easy availability of fireworks and sparklers, in the UK at least, which has meant that the former are frequently released both before and after this particular period and at erratic and unpredictable times of the day and night.
The effect of this on pets can be incredibly traumatic, causing physical, physiological and behavioural symptoms of stress, anxiety and fear. This negative stress can impact dramatically upon the health and emotional well-being of the animal and their carer and can also place them in danger – there have been several reports in my locality of dogs bolting and subsequently coming to harm due to extreme fear from exposure to fireworks.
So what can we do to help our pets, is there anything we can do that will actually relieve the symptoms they suffer? Here in the UK, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 years to purchase fireworks and for fireworks to be released between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. – except for certain specific dates including bonfire night (November 5), New Year’s Eve, and Diwali, for instance, and even these dates have their own time restrictions. If we could predict absolutely that fireworks were not to be released except for these dates and times, then maybe we could pre-plan and the predictability of the routine would give a little comfort, but, of course, a fireworks law is nigh on impossible to enforce. Just recently however, a major supermarket here in the UK has pledged to ban the sale of fireworks, a small but great step forward that has been welcomed by a large portion of pet owners who would much prefer fireworks to be completely inaccessible to private individuals.
How can we help during the Halloween period?
Make the issue visible: Several dog related organizations and charities in the UK have advocated the placement of ‘my pet is scared/fearful’ etc. signs in prominent places to try to reduce the number of callers or prank callers to their home within this period.
Bolt holes: Prior to this week, build a comfy den in a quiet area of your home where your pet will not be disturbed. This will ultimately become a place of safe retreat. Fill the area with squashy pillows, duvets or toys which will help to reduce sound and create a warm and comforting space.
Allow your pet to flee but do comfort him/her is he/she is scared: Should your pet become afraid and want to bolt whilst within the home, then do not prevent this from happening. Fleeing from perceived danger is a survival mechanism and you will exacerbate stress if you prevent this. If you find that your pet actively seeks your physical proximity and comfort, then provide lots of it. Don’t shun your pet when he is fearful and worry that you may somehow ‘reinforce that fear’; fear is an emotional response that will not be strengthened by your behaviour. In fact, think of it this way – when you pat or stroke your pet, levels of neurochemicals including prolactin, oxytocin and beta-endorphins increase, making your pet feel good.
Reduce stimulation: For some pets, the visuals of this particular period are enough to pre-empt a behavioural response – they become a predictive cue of something not very nice about to happen. So, close curtains and blinds and try to provide some extra background noise or ‘white noise’. Keep the TV or radio on or try some specific dog calming music.
Exercise early: It goes without saying that pets should be walked early on in the day, although last year I still saw several dogs being walked during a firework display and not looking too happy about it! It’s common sense. A little extra exercise will help your pet to settle later in the day.
Mental and sensory stimulation: Try engaging your pet in enrichment opportunities; hunting things out, finding things, retrieve games, brain games etc. to focus her mind on a new and positive task. There is much research into the calming and even sedentary effects of sensory stimulation, so with guidance, this may also be worth a try.
Cute costumes? Think again!: We might think those spider outfits, sausage dogs in hot dogs, pets in pumpkins look super cute, but does your pet really share our thoughts? Being restricted, being in a contraption that’s totally alien can be stressful and even threatening when it’s put on and may lead to your pet signalling he’s not at all comfortable about it.
Feed earlier: Try feeding your pet a little earlier in the day so that his/her appetite is satiated and he/she is more likely to relax and settle.
Get help: If your pet becomes severely stressed or you know he/she will be seriously stressed, then you need to take action. Intervention from a qualified and accredited behaviour consultant can dramatically reduce the severity of the symptoms your pet suffers.
Products such as synthetic pheromones and herbal bases are available that can help in reducing anxiety, these often work best as an adjunct to behavioural therapy. Your vet can also prescribe drugs if your pet’s welfare is seriously compromised.
About the Author
Anna Francesca Bradley MSc BSc (Hons) is a UK based Provisional Clinical, Certified IAABC Animal Behaviourist and Animal Behaviour and Training Council, Accredited Animal Behaviourist. Anna owns Perfect Pawz! Training and Behaviour Practice www.perfectpawz.co.uk in Hexham, Northumberland UK, where the aim is always to create and restore happy relationships between dog and owner in a relaxed way and using methods based upon sound scientific principles which are always force free and fun.