While many two-legged animals enjoy a good fireworks display for New Year’s Eve celebrations, it can be quite scary for our four-legged companions.
Fireworks aren’t the only thing that can spark fear in our pets. The Bureau of Meteorology is warning us of a wet and stormy summer, so there’ll be thunderstorms to deal with too.
Animal ecologist Dr Joy Tripovich, a UNSW Science research fellow with an interest in animal behaviour, welfare and sensory ecology, says these panicked reactions can be completely normal.
“Storms are quite loud, explosive and can happen unpredictably. For an animal, that’s quite scary,” Dr Tripovich says.
But while fear of storms and fireworks might be natural for your pet, it doesn’t have to be the norm. In fact, Dr Tripovich says there’s a good reason we should support our pets as much as possible during these episodes.
“Long-term stress can be dangerous for our pets,” she says.
“It can lead to conditions such as skin infections, stomach upsets, and can ultimately shorten an animal’s life.”
Dr Tripovich says that getting rid of your pet’s anxiety isn’t something that can happen overnight, but there are several things you can do to help them cope with the stress of fireworks and storms.
- Make sure they can’t flee
Pets often try to run away during storms and fireworks, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you – in fact, it can be a normal reaction to a perceived danger.
But running away can be dangerous for the animal, so Dr Tripovich says it’s important to make sure they can’t get out.
“You don’t want them getting out on the road, so make sure the fence or gate is secure,” she says. “If they somehow do escape, you want to ensure they can safely get back home, so make sure they’re wearing their collar and keep your contact details on their microchip up-to-date.”
- Provide a safe space for your pet
The next step is to give your pet a safe space at home.
“Providing a safe space for your pet is very important,” says Dr Tripovich. “This can either be a room or a crate that you’ve trained them in.”
Whatever space you choose, you can make it feel even safer by obstructing the noises in some way, for example by playing TV or calming music.
“A dark space without many windows could also be beneficial,” she says.
- Try to tire them out beforehand
If you know fireworks or storms are coming, it can help to first tire out your pet with exercise.
“Exercise can help your pet expend their energy before the storm comes,” says Dr Tripovich. “Tiring a dog out mentally and physically could lead to a calmer dog.”
- Stay calm
Pets tend to feed off our cues. But if we’re present and calm during the storm or firework episode, we can help reassure them there’s nothing to worry about.
“Animals will cue in on our behaviour,” says Dr Tripovich. “We can help alleviate their stress by not responding to the loud noises in a fearful manner ourselves.”
- Desensitise them
Desensitising your pet to the stimuli can be another useful stress management technique.
You can do this by playing thunder or firework sounds while your pet is in a good mood – perhaps while enjoying a bone or treat – and in a safe, comfortable environment.
“Desensitisation can be a way of reassuring your pet that nothing bad is going to happen to them when they hear this sound,” says Dr Tripovich. “Although, you would only want to try this technique away from the episode of a storm.”
- Train them young, if you can
Not all pets get stressed during storms – for example, you might have one dog snoozing happily in their bed while another is panicked and hiding in a corner of the house.
While it’s not fully understood why individual animals respond in certain ways, Dr Tripovich says it could be related to the animals having an early exposure to these loud sounds. So, if you have a puppy or a kitten, you have an extra chance now to help set them up for a stress-free future.
“Early exposure with no negative association is good training for our pets,” says Dr Tripovich. “The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life is the most important time to get them learning about these things. For kittens, it’s even earlier – around seven to eight weeks.”
- If their fear is strong, see your vet
Lastly, Dr Tripovich says to never forget your first port of call when it comes to your pet’s health: their vet.
“Long term stress is unhealthy, so if your pet is having such a strong reaction to these events, I suggest speaking to your vet,” she says.
“There are a number of other measures that the vet might suggest, for example, pheromones, anti-anxiety medication, or thunderstorm jackets.