Look after your pets

Published on: 03 Oct 2016

Remember, remember the fifth of November...autumn is my favourite time of the year, and bonfire night at King George V fields is not to be missed, but the whizzes and bangs that delight the child in all of us can be absolutely miserable for our furry friends. It’s not known why some animals become afraid of fireworks, thunder or other loud noises (fear of hot air balloons must be peculiar to Bristolian pets) but too often a fear response worsens over time to become a phobia, where the fear is persistent, excessive and irrational. We can help to prevent this by introducing our pets to loud noises early in their development using a sound CD to accustom them to thunder, bangs, crying babies and other loud noises, and then try to proactively manage any events that they might find scary to prevent a fear response escalating. Sometimes a particularly traumatic event can be an obvious trigger – one of my dogs developed a life-long terror of thunderstorms after being caught in a sudden dramatic storm whilst she was restrained in the boot of the car. The fear can also generalise to include elements other than the noise – for example she was very sensitive to changes in air pressure or electrostatic charge that predicted a storm was coming, she predicted the weather much better than the Met Office ever did! 

Signs that your pet is frightened can be very variable and include hiding away or seeking close owner contact, panting and pacing, chewing, drooling or nose-licking, trembling, over-grooming, soiling the house or causing damage and trying to escape. There was an incident locally where an extremely well trained collie ran away after being frightened by a sudden noise and was only found several days and an extensive social media campaign later. It’s another reason to check that your pet’s microchip information on the database is up to date. 

There are some simple things you can do to make your pet feel safer at home during firework season.  Start early in the day by making sure your dog is well exercised – it both tires the pet out making them more relaxed and increases serotonin levels in the brain which combats anxiety. Let dogs out for a final toilet trip and shut cats inside before it gets dark. Owners can unwittingly make things worse by being overly anxious themselves or by providing too much comfort, making the pet feel more worried. Try to cultivate the attitude that everything is fine and dandy, there’s nothing to see here. Provide the pet with a safe den to hide in if they choose, but it’s important that they are not confined in there and unable to escape as that can be very stressful. A blanket over their crate, cat box or a big cardboard box and some clothing you have worn to snuggle with can provide a bit of reassurance. Draw the curtains to block out flashes, and put on some music or the TV to muffle any external noises. If it’s possible to move hutches for smaller pets, bring them indoors or cover with a blanket etc to muffle noise and flashes.

If pets are showing signs of anxiety, there are many medications and natural therapies that can help. We use a lot of Pet Remedy, a herbal spray containing valerian, to calm anxious patients within the practice, and this can also be used in a home environment. There are pheromone based plug-in products available for both dogs and cats which use their superior sense of smell to provide calming signals and we can also recommend several different dietary supplements to decrease anxiety levels. For those pets that have developed a phobia, prescription medication might be necessary and it makes sense to think ahead and book a medicines check with your vet well in advance of fireworks night to discuss the best option for your pet. It is often possible with patience, persistence and advice from a vet or behaviourist to reduce the severity of a phobia but this takes time and needs to be thought about well in advance.

Lastly, a plea on behalf of our spikey friends who often find piles of wood and old leaves make an ideal place to hide – please check carefully for hedgehogs before lighting your bonfire, ideally only construct the pile in the place you intend to light it on the day. Thank you!

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