By Charlie Powell, College of Veterinary Medicine
PULLMAN, Wash. – More pets go missing around the Fourth of July holiday in the U.S. than at any other time of year.
Some estimates show pet escapement increases 30-60 percent between July 4-6, due to fear and panic caused by fireworks. Many shelters report that July 5 is their busiest day due to frantic owners trying to find lost pets.
“Pet owners whose pets have never experienced fireworks or that do not tolerate the loud noise and bright light need to begin working now to desensitize their animals,” said Dr. Leticia Fanucchi, behavioral services veterinarian and researcher at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“If time is short or if the animal has not responded to calming efforts in the past, people should contact their family veterinarians early this week and decide if medication to mildly sedate the pet or reduce its anxiety is in order,” Fanucchi said. “Our behavior service is also open this entire week to help pet owners.”
Supplement available through veterinarians
There is a natural behavioral supplement, Solliquin® available only through licensed veterinarians that can help calm pets, too.
“It is a supplement we provide at WSU, and unfortunately there is no way around getting it from a veterinarian,” she said. “The active ingredient in the animal form is actually a chemical mirror image of a similar formulation sold over the counter in human supplements. However, as a supplement alone this drug may not be strong enough, and some pets will need sedation, which can only be prescribed by a veterinarian, too.
“Trying to use the human drug in animals can cause additional problems, and it will not work. In fact no human sedatives, anti-anxiety medications, or pain medications should ever be administered to pets.”
Fanucchi also emphasized that no drug or supplement and no single behavioral plan is a panacea that will work for all pets. “Pets with persistent behavioral problems need to be seen by a veterinary behaviorist, whether it is dealing with fireworks or anything else.”
To desensitize pets, Fanucchi suggests using recorded sounds of fireworks replayed at very low levels and gradually increasing the volume. Such sounds are readily available online or as smartphone applications.
“The owner needs to work with the pet gradually while they play the sounds. Start with the sounds played very low and gradually increase the volume as the pet progresses. If the sounds distract the pet or they become nervous, the owner needs to get the pet’s attention and redirect them with high-value treats and petting, hugging, talking, favorite toys and anything else that makes them feel safe.”
Fanucchi warns that the attention span for most animals is short, so training sessions can’t last more than 15-20 minutes without resting the pet.
She also warns that “high-value treats” does not mean overfeeding a pet. Behaviorists and trainers often remark that something like a single sandwich-sized slice of cheese can be cut to make 100 high-value treats.
“A person doesn’t want to overwhelm their pet trying to correct a problem to the point that they create additional problems,” she said. “At some point, you have to stop flooding their minds with stimuli and allow them to relax and absorb the training before trying again.”
For those that find themselves with an anxious or frightened pet on the Fourth of July, Fanucchi says there are many simple physical strategies that can help.
“Try to isolate the animal from the sound, but in an environment that is also calming. All pets should be crate trained and that is their safe place. Put them away for the evening and perhaps turn the open end away from the direction of the sound. A blanket over their kennel box helps muffle sound and light, too.
“Put them in small, darkened room they are familiar with and stay with them if necessary. Again bring all their toys and familiar items to them. If necessary, stay with them and help redirect their attention when they react to the sudden noises. Food puzzles where the animal has to work to get the treat work very well in many cases. In some cases, a person may even have to in a sense den up with the pet in a closet to get away from the most sound possible and provide them with comfort.”
Finally, Fanucchi says leading up to the big day, try to act as normally as possible.
“If you are nervous, your pet likely will be nervous, too. Keep their schedule the same. Feed and exercise them on time or even a little early to avoid the fireworks. And most importantly, any pet taken outside during this period needs to have secure leashing and redundant positive identification, such as tags and a microchip both in case they are lost.”
Mark Jakubczak, a certified pet detective and founder of PetAmberAlert™, said, “Sadly, only 14 percent of lost pets are returned to their owners, according to nationwide statistics. And worse, 30-60 percent of lost pets are euthanized because they cannot be properly identified and returned to their owners.”
- Charlie Powell, public information officer, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, 509-595-2017, firstname.lastname@example.org