Bright lights, loud sounds: How to handle fear factors
School’s out for summer! The temperatures are rising, and you’re planning your picnics, barbecues, vacations, and more. But with the warm weather come two frightening events for your pets: Fourth of July fireworks and summer thunderstorms.
It might seem funny when your dog or cat runs under the bed at the first sign of lightning, but as with humans, stress is unhealthy for your pet. However, there are ways to comfort your pet during a thunderstorm or a July 4th celebration, plus some behavioral practices to help them overcome their fears.
- Can I train my pet to not fear loud noises?
Yes, pets can be trained not to fear loud noises. This is the most effective strategy in the long run, but it takes time to teach your dog or cat to overcome their fear. The key is to acclimate them first to the smallest possible does and increase exposure slowly as they are ready.
Try pulling up a thunderstorm or fireworks show on YouTube, or record a real one. Play the video for your pet at a low volume, and associate the booms with something fun, such as a treat, playtime, or dinnertime.
Do this over the course of several weeks or months, gradually increasing the volume of the video. If your dog or cat becomes frightened of the video at any point, stop, then try again at a lower volume later. Ideally, you should stop just before you pet becomes anxious.
Also practice training your dog to settle and focus on command, using rewards such as training treats. Practice this training in the area of the house where your dog will be most comfortable, or where you will put your dog when the fireworks or thunder begins.
Use training cues, such as a favorite blanket, each time you practice. This helps the dog associate the command, the location, and the cues with calming.
However, thunderstorms aren’t just loud noises – dogs and cats often sense a change in weather before we can, and they may associate the feeling they get before it begins to rain with the loud noise of thunder. It may be difficult to train that fear out of them without the help of a professional, and your pet may never overcome this fear.
- Should I let my pet hide from fireworks or thunderstorms?
Yes. If there isn’t time for exposure training, make sure your pet has access to his favorite hiding spots. If your pet prefers hiding under a bed, in a bathtub, or in a certain closet, keep the doors open to those areas so they can go where they feel safest.
Setting up a kennel covered with a blanket or a similar den-like area is also a good idea. On days without loud noises present, give your pet treats or food in this area, or keep certain toys in it so they associate it with a positive feeling. Do not force or lock your pet in this area if they are frightened. If this is not their preferred hiding spot, they may try to escape and injure themselves.
Try to keep your pet’s preferred hiding spot dark so that bright lights and flashes do not further upset them. Also consider an anxiety wrap, such as a Thunder Shirt, to keep your dog calm. If possible, engage your pet in playtime before the thunder or fireworks start, and keep them distracted through the noise.
However, do not fuss over your pet after they become scared. Giving your pet lots of positive attention or treats when they are scared tells them, “This is the correct response, being afraid earns me treats.” Instead, make sure your pet’s preferred hiding spot is accessible, then go about your business as usual.
Do not punish or scold your pet when they are frightened. Simply ignoring the behavior is the best course of action.
- Should I give my pet medication during a fireworks show or thunderstorm?
Giving your pet a pill and calling it a day sounds like the easiest route, but medication for anxiety should only be given with veterinary supervision.
Calming medications take at least an hour to be effective, and if not given with plenty of time, the thunder or fireworks will be over before the medication takes effect. Do not give your pet any over-the-counter medications. All medications should be veterinarian-approved.
Typically, drugs are a last resort to other soothing measures. If you and your veterinarian decide medication is the best course of action for now, you should still work with your pet to naturally calm down during thunderstorms or fireworks so you don’t have to rely on it forever.
- I’m going to be gone during a storm or fireworks show – what can I do for my scared pet?
If you know you will be out of the house for Fourth of July festivities, or on a day when thunderstorms are possible, take measures to keep your pet safe. Bring outdoor dogs inside, or consider adding a doggy door so they can easily come in if the weather gets bad.
If you know your pet has destructive tendencies when frightened, provide acceptable chew toys or scratching posts so they aren’t tempted by those expensive heels or couches.
Finally, microchip your pets and attach a tag with your name, address, and phone number to their collars. Consider joining a social media group for your neighborhood, especially if there is a “lost and found pets” page, and let neighbors know if your pet escapes.
If your pets do get out – and you’ll be surprised at how crafty they can get when frightened – it’s important to give them all the tools they need to get back home.