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Helping pets cope with the fireworks pandemic

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With communities nationwide cancelling fireworks because of COVID, you might think the sale of fireworks would be down, but the opposite is actually true, as people bored with staying home are opting to celebrate the holiday by putting on their own fireworks displays. The problem is, they’re not limiting their celebrations to the holiday weekend.

“Fireworks sales have been unprecedented and stronger than ever in the history of my being in this industry and I’ve been in it for 50 years,” Bruce Zoldan, CEO of Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, told USA Today. Zoldan said sales of fireworks shot up right around mid-May when states started phased-in reopenings and haven’t slowed. And whether or not you believe conspiracy theories about the government being behind the recent fireworks onslaught, there’s no question it’s causing big headaches for pet owners.

NEWStat spoke with Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB, CPDT-KA, a certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of Behavior Solutions for Pets, a consulting firm in Hamilton, Virginia, to get her take.

“Usually, New Year’s [Eve] and the Fourth of July are the big bugaboo days,” Sinn says. But with the current onslaught of fireworks, “there’s no celebration associated with it.” Instead of limiting fireworks to one day or one night, people have been setting them off at all hours for weeks on end, which is not only driving pets nuts—it makes it harder for owners to keep them from freaking out.

Sinn says that if pets have a relatively mild response to the noise, there are steps that veterinarians can advise concerned clients to try at home: “Turn on a white noise machine, or background music, to try and drown out the noise.” Encourage the pet to go to a safe place, such as a room without windows that may be more soundproof. Or, set up a crate and cover it to create a secure den.

You can also try changing how the pet feels about fireworks.

“Start a play session when the fireworks start,” Sinn suggests. “They’ll begin to associate fireworks with good things. If you give a dog his favorite rawhide chew toy every time the neighbor starts setting off fireworks,” Sinn says, they’ll start to link the treat with the sound. “Hopefully, when noise starts, they’ll start to think, ‘Ooh, rawhide chew toy!’ instead of ‘They’re trying to kill me.’”

Sinn stresses that the success of these approaches depends on the pet’s level of anxiety. “If he’s just pacing, feeling a little anxious, they should work,” she says. “If he’s trying to claw his way to China, or break through a plate glass window in his panic to escape it, playing music’s not going to cut it.”

At that point, other options could include a pheromone spray to help calm anxiety. Or, if the problem’s more severe, medication. Sinn says she prescribes medication to many of her patients: “By the time they come to my practice, they’re really having issues.”

And with the recent onslaught of fireworks, “veterinarians need to ask clients if their pets are experiencing a reaction to the noise and make sure they’re not having an extreme response that would benefit from medication.” She points out that between 20% and 40% of pets experience some form of noise phobia, “And a lot of it’s untreated.”

Sinn says many pet owners think hiding from fireworks is just something that dogs and cats do, and veterinarians should address that misconception.

“Having a dog or a cat hiding under the bed, shivering and drooling?” says Sinn. “That’s not okay.”

Photo credit: © iStock/Kira-Yan